Though good for a laugh and a toe tap, on the surface Brent Amaker may come across as a band lacking any long-standing depth. There’s a lot of gimmick and show surrounding the endeavor. Brent and The Rodeo dress up in either all white or all black suits, sometimes wearing Lone Ranger-like masks, sometimes accompanied by burlesque dancers on stage. Amaker sings in one of the most monotone ranges you can find in music, and with nearly every song employing the same horse gallop or train beat, the casual listener may regard the band favorably for a few songs, but overall see it as a short-lived stunt.
But whether our own misgivings kept us from seeing the genius behind Brent Amaker and the Rodeo before, or this new project just represents a big step forward, Year of the Dragon is a wickedly creative, well-written, brilliantly orchestrated, and an infectiously entertaining surprise that offers stiff competition to the gaggle of albums being regarded as the year’s best.
If someone asked me to pony up an example of how in 30 years from now when we all have jet packs and flying cars, how country music could still respect and represent its roots, but still offer a relevant sound, I would hand them over a copy of Year of the Dragon. But the style of this project doesn’t resort to simple-minded, catchy beats to appeal to kids, it takes the fantastic, comic-book, idealistic take on the future and embeds it in the audio context. It is The Ventures / David Bowie approach to country music.
Year of the Dragon strikes that always-elusive balance between substance and wide-ranging appeal. Though the appeal will be hidden from some for the aforementioned reasons (monotone lyrics and similar rhythms between songs), once you delve beneath the surface, this album offers succulent melodies and catchy moments that make it downright addicting beyond the intellectual appeal of the artistry and lyricism. Similarly to how a recent project from Slim Cessna’s Auto Club called Unentitled took traditionally pop modes and engineered them into a more artistic format, so does Brent Amaker & The Rodeo, allowing Year of the Dragon to tickle all of the sensations on the music listener’s palette.
This album just sounds good. Its effort was painstaking: The mix, the left to right panning, the little percussive elements and cattle whistles all over it adding texture to every corner of the music, with the instrumentation defining the term “tasteful,” embellishing Brent’s compositions warmly without ever showboating. By the end you not only don’t mind Amaker’s small vocal range, you crave it.
All of this may make the poetry in Year of the Dragon feel like an afterthought, but in songs like “I Put My Boots On,” “Troubled Times,” and “One Idea,” Amaker flashes both his wit and wisdom, without getting in the way of the corporeal appeal of the music. It’s not just the simple beats and underlying country bones of the music that have many comparing Brent Amaker to a futuristic version of Johnny Cash, it’s also his trend toward the cautionary tale and conveying a moral through his music, while not being afraid to throw a little subversive humor in for good measure.
The consistently dark hue of the music might start to erode at your attention span a little bit by the end of the album, but another asset to Year of the Dragon is the brevity of the songs, with no track on the album trespassing past the 4-minute mark. The album sucks you in, holds you, and ends too soon like it should.
Again let me issue the cautionary note that this type of offbeat artistry is not going to be everyone’s bag, but for those evolved music listeners, including those who may see country as a subordinate genre in their world, Year of the Dragon is an absolute sense-fulfilling joy.
Two guns up!
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