Brent Best, lead player of on-again, off-again alt-country rock band Slobberbone, has released his first solo album, Your Dog, Champ. The rowdy, raucous, Texas roots humor of his band is greatly subdued on this effort, resulting in a low-key, sweet country sound that celebrates the cycle of life and death from a child’s perspective, with just a touch of adult cynicism.
The 11 tracks can be heard as a suite of songs that collectively conjure a paradox of Americana culture with songs bursting in rural Texas charm, even as a sack of newborn kittens are being drowned in the pond. Back porch camaraderie, cigarettes and beer, and dusty dirt and steaming blacktop roads are intertwined with references to absent and violent fathers, single-parent mothers, and lives unfulfilled.
The childhood perception of death is delicately examined in “Aunt Ramona”, a song of an Oklahoma-to-Texas family road trip in which the title subject possesses “the smell of perfume and sweet ammonia” as she quietly passes away in the back seat. “None of us could wake her, daddy said that was fine”, the child recalls as Best’s organ flirts with a sad lullaby, and gentle acoustics seem resigned to the realization that death is as peaceful and ordinary as an afternoon nap.
“Robert Cole” also reveals a child’s interpretation of tragedy, and the shaping of identity, as domestic abuse – slamming doors, enraged voices, and a cowering woman – is remembered wistfully and painfully and set against a lofty and mournful ballad in which the narrator dares to take solace on the blacktop road “where I was not to walk ’till I was old.”
Songs like “Daddy Was a Liar”, where daddy at the pond has “a bag of kittens and a brick”, and “Good Man Now”, where it is told, “The only good man is a dead man/Daddy is a good man now”, put a positive spin on the nastiest of scenarios while stressing the cardiac ache in “heart-achy”. This is gritty stuff and Best breezes through it with a naturalistic poetic flare. It is, at times, downright touching.
The country musicians backing up Best, particularly on fiddle (Ralph White), violin (Petra Kelly), and pedal steel guitar (Burton Lee), are a tidy group of players who masterfully accentuate Best’s narration like polished journeymen and can pick up the tempo when need be. “Tangled”, with its American Indian vibe, tethers on a jangle of steel guitar, and the sumptuous instrumental “Travel, Again” whips up dust and tumbleweeds like a tornado rolling across the Texas prairie.
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