Think the straits are dire in the country world? Well try being in the world of rock, where the walls are closing in no different than in country from the ever-present march of hip-hop looking to dominate every corner of popular music, but there’s not even a legitimate radio format left to aspire for. That’s one of the reasons two of the hottest bands on Americana radio at the moment are Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, while Darius Rucker is a member of the Grand Ole Opry. There’s nowhere left to go.
That’s also the reason that a country music outlet is talking about a rock band from Michigan. It’s not because they’re country, because they’re not, even though it’s fallen to country and roots outlets to give them the attention they deserve, and even if a name like “Michigan Rattlers” may bring to mind a redneck motorcycle gang with allegiances to David Allan Coe.
What guitarist, frontman, and primary songwriter Graham Young, bass player Adam Reed, keys player Christian Wilder, and drummer Tony Audia are doing that have many in the roots world raving and wanting to claim them as their own is bringing songs forward that speak straight to the heart and gut, just like your favorite country and roots performers. Call it roots rock if you wish, but even that feels like a stretch. The music is still a bit too stylized and melodic for that designation. But whatever you call it, it’s heartfelt, honest, organic, and good.
These high school buddies from northern Michigan may cite their influences as Bob Seger and CCR. But to this set of ears, this is broody, 90’s-inspired post-grunge rock for the most part, with some significant Springsteen influences mixed in. The pulsating underbeat, piano, and hushed tones of the opening song “The Storm” set the moody vibe for the record, which is embodied in the cover art as well. The Rattlers reach a crescendo sonically and creatively in the middle of the set with “That Kind of Life,” and then “Like a Kid,” where lead singer Graham Young almost sounds like Bono near the end, in a song whose persistent drums remind you of middle era Radiohead.
These signifiers shouldn’t be regarded as a liability though. It’s how the Michigan Rattlers call upon and awaken a wide host of American music influences—from Heartland Americana, to 90’s radio rock, to more modern indie influences—that create easy openings for the audience, while the songs speak to a hunger and restlessness that finds appeal in us all. Whatever is happening, it all feels pretty epic when rendered through the imaginations of the Michigan Rattlers.
The later portions of the record is where you start to spy some of the similarities with the roots world. The gloomy and acoustic “More Than Just A Dream” with its moans and yearning makes for the best songwriting moment on a record where songwriting is a strength throughout. And “Sleep In It” is something you definitely could hear early versions of The Supersuckers or Drive-By Truckers bang out.
Where the band stumbles a bit is on the final song of the eight-song set called “Desert Heart.” As fun as it might be, it’s just way too obviously an E Street bit complete with saxophone to be anything but appropriate for a tribute record to The Boss. For a band that has done so well carving out their own sound that sinks its barbs of appeal across as wide swath of music listeners, this one is a little too emulative to be effective, even if the merits of the song are otherwise sound.
Similar to a band like Lucero or maybe even some eras of American Aquarium, the music of the Michigan Rattlers is guilty of being country or roots only by association. But you’re not reluctant to embrace them because just like the rest of us, they’re refugees of an era where electronic pulsations and hip-hop posturing predominates everything else. Who cares what you label it if it’s made with heart, and delivered with purpose? It’s not country, but it’s not bad at all. It’s the Michigan Rattlers.
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