“Once you read between the lines
You miss the days when you were blind.”
Angry, subversive, pointed, and powerful, the eighth album from one of the few performers left who can call themselves Red Dirt and nobody will cry foul is a lot to digest, and hard to leave behind. Squelch is what Jason Boland and his backing band The Stragglers chose to name this work, which is the same name given to the knob that truckers use to eliminate the static and idle chatter that sometimes comes through the speakers of their CB radios. Once a more common article for truckers and civilians alike, the CB is now a relic, along with the squelch knob. But never before has the static and idle chatter been so loud, and the need to squelch it so necessary.
If you throw Squelch on at a party or partake of the music paying half attention, you may miss what’s going on beneath the surface. The first thing your ears will recognize is that this is an authentic country album, tried and true to Boland’s unmistakable legacy as the the steadfast, hard country honky tonk performer of the Red Dirt realm. Many of his old running buddies from Stillwater may weeble and wobble back and forth between country and rock, but Boland is the compass point where the country influence in Red Dirt and Texas country is pinned.
One wrinkle to the sound of Squelch is the replacement of long-time Straggler guitarist Roger Dale Ray with the young and hungry Cody Angel. His addition of steel guitar on this record really adds an extra texture not heard so deeply embedded in Boland’s sound before, and Angel’s unique style and tone are a new asset for the Stragglers.
But what’s happening in the songwriting is what the listener should most concern themselves with. If there was ever an album worth running down a physical copy of and burying your nose into the lyrics, it would be this one. To get the full experience of Squelch, it’s necessary to know what is being said, and even with lyrical cheat sheets, some of the songs are still hard to decipher the underlying meaning of.
What is for sure is that Jason Boland isn’t pulling any punches, even though sarcasm and connotations are the way he chooses to deliver his message in many cases. From the hipster, to the politico, from the white flighter to the gentrifier, few are spared an odious depiction at some point on Squelch.
Most vilified in this work is the time we live in today, and the artifice of prosperity as the gulf between the have’s and have not’s continues to widen, and people fall over themselves to be heard instead of to listen. Or like Boland says, “Nothing’s coming through but the static. All I can hear anymore is the noise.”
Time for a turn of the squelch knob, indeed.
In moments, Squelch can even leave one a little unsettled. Though the ambiguity of the lyricism is an asset overall, at other times you’re kind of unsure if you agree with what’s being said, or if it is you and your value system or actions which are being admonished.
I’m not exactly sure who Boland’s poison pen is pointed at in the albums sole rock song, “I Guess It’s Alright to Be an Asshole,” but it burrows deep. Though “Fat and Merry” will play with many as a party song while they hold their bottle of beer to the sky and sing along, the truth is the joke’s on them.
In “Christmas in Huntsville”—the only song not written by Boland on the record (it was the work of original Straggler fiddler Dana Hazzard)—it takes the already dour story of an inmate spending their Christmas on Texas death row getting ready for execution, and adds the exclamation point of the accused being innocent of his crime. Squelch may preach for the suppression of so much unnecessary noise coming at us, but it’s not about to censor its own message for the sake of the comfort of the listener.
Squelch is not all angry verses and anti-establishment vibes though. “Do You Love Me Any Less” is a piano-based ballad touching on the concern someone often away from home has about the status of their significant lover’s heart. “Bienville” is another well-written song with a love story at its foundation. If the album has a “hit,” “Heartland Bypass” might win the award for the most infectious, though “Lose Early” comes on strong with subsequent listens as a groove-laden jam.
Others may gravitate to the two explicit songs of the album—the aforementioned “I Guess It’s Alright,” and “Fuck, Fight, and Rodeo”—but both of these songs are burdened by feeling more judgmental than wisdom-infused insight and reprimand. And sometimes Squelch is just a little too esoteric to get its point across. It’s not a stretch to say that most who hear this album will misunderstand it, though maybe that’s the ultimate validation of its message.
This is unlike any other country album you might hear, though some may hear similarities to Sturgill Simpson’s recent questioning of values and beliefs. Squelch is traditional country to the ear, whose lyrics aggressively tear away at the morass of modern reality. Usually this business is reserved for punk music or political folk. But Boland believes country can be a worthy vessel for social disobedience too.
To “enjoy” this album is probably to misapprehend it, though you can certainly walk away feeling that the listening experience was rewarding. And to assign too much opinion to Squelch seems to also miss the message. So even more than with most records, listeners are encouraged to dig deep into this project and make up their own minds.
And kudos for the cover art, which captures the dystopian, broken-promise-future fleshed out in the lyrics of the album, though many would never guess this was a country album from the outside.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
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Jason Boland and the Stragglers are: Jason Boland (Lead Vocals, Guitar), Cody Angel (Lead Guitar, Pedal Steel, Dobro), Brad Rice (Drums), Grant Tracy (Bass), Nick Worley (Fiddle).