When you turn on country radio, you may get the sense that America’s small towns are like a Disneyland of delights. Everyone has brand new jacked up trucks, the beer is flowing and always cold, it’s perpetually summer, and hot girls in daisy dukes are willing to slide up next to you as you spend every day chilling out near a river or lake. Even hard work is edified almost as if it was a form of entertainment.
The reality of things in America’s rural areas is much more grave: bombed out communities and abandoned downtowns, multi-generational agrarian economies plunged into ruin by corporate farming, rampant unemployment, and the scourge of the prescription drug epidemic gutting families and destroying lives.
It’s the real, true-to-life version of forgotten America that songwriter Nathan Kalish and his country band The Lastcallers from Grand Rapids, Michigan sing about in their new album Continental Breakfast of Champions; not some fairy tale to help prop up a false sense of escapism for bored suburbanites.
If you’ve got a belly full of songs and a spirited message behind them, you don’t need much more to help spin the magic all great music must have. Johnny Cash only needed two behind him to start, and so did Elvis. Not to go as far as comparing him to these two titans of American music, but Nathan Kalish can also take a conservation of manpower and still make you feel what he has to say, aided by the sparsity of sound as opposed to being hindered by it.
It starts with Kalish’s songs that spring from a very palpable anger at what he sees as a hard-touring songwriter drawing well-worn lines across the map like an Etch-A-Sketch needle. Playing for the sunken faces, and listening to real life stories inspires Kalish to not just tell tales from the other side of the American experience, but to attempt to dispel the myth of exceptionalism and prosperity that ultimately only benefit the few. Instead of braying on and on about the beauty of materialism, Kalish preaches the virtue of poordom.
The message may veer towards an account of a modern-day dystopia, but the sound of Nathan Kalish and the Lastcallers is very much ensconced in the American heartland and the twang of country. The crux of the sound is driven by the Telecaster work of Michael Hopper II, who dials in the perfect tone, minds the melody and space, yet makes his presence richly known when his time comes. And without a drummer, upright bass player Eric Soules holds down the rhythm himself, while also lending necessary harmonies to the vocals.
Nathan Kalish has a number of projects, including a more roots rock band called the Wildfire, as well as solo material. But Continental Breakfast of Champions is a delightfully sparse, deftly written, and wickedly entertaining work of dissent, with an underlying message of hope in the spirit of man to overcome the travails imposed by forces stronger than themselves.
1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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Continental Breakfast of Champions can be streamed on Spotify and most other services. To purchase physical CD’s, paypal $15 and your mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org.