There was an interesting buzz amongst some of the online Americana community when news of this album’s release was announced earlier this year. Naturally folk were keen to hear Brent Best again after a five year layoff, after all his band, Slobberbone were up there with the Drive By Truckers as an ass kicking roots rock outfit with author Stephen King name checking them as one of his favourites. In addition there was a degree of relief with the album having been crowd funded some years back with some folk fearing that the disc was destined to join the realms of fabled “lost” records. Truth was that Best was beset by a series of calamities that would have derailed anyone and by the time he was back on his feet he and his label, Last Chance Records, went out of their way to contact the original funders with Best penning an open letter explaining the five year wait and asking lost backers to contact him. Released a few months ago in the States Your Dog, Champ, it’s fair to say, more than repaid the wait with the reviews generous in their acclaim. The UK release is the first fruit of a promising collaboration between US label Last Chance and Brighton based At The Helm Records with some further delights promised.
First thing to say about the album is that it’s not the old rambunctious swagger of Slobberbone with Best admitting that when he started recording he “proceeded to furiously overdub the shit out of them (the songs), overcooking them within an inch of their life.” He’d been living with these songs for a while and it seems that only when he had got himself settled that he was able to fully realise his vision, re-recording the songs and then getting some simpatico players in to fine tune them. The end result is one of those albums which wears a patina of dust with some gnarly roots digging deep. A combination of dark ballads, acoustic based with pedal steel and fiddle accoutrements, and growling electric workouts all graced with Best’s grumbled vocals, it’s an album that impresses more and more on repeated listening, the lyrics repaying close attention as Best travels down a dark highway, the sort of album that fans of Neil Young have probably given up on ever hearing again from Shakey.
The album opens with the breezy soft country rock of Daddy Was A Liar, a deceptively upbeat song with a dark underbelly which opens with a bagful of kittens drowned and ends with an infant suffering the same fate. No such deception on the following Good Man Now with Best opening the song with the blunt, “Mama you always told me that the only good man was a dead man.” A grim tale of patricide with soaring pedal steel and screeching violin the song swings from slow ballad to ballsy rock in dramatic fashion. This howl of a violin is used again on the claustrophobic clutter of Tangled, the “heaviest song” here; crunching guitars over a rumbling bass line, splashing cymbals and a deep spiralling guitar solo make for a fine sonic soup with Best responding to himself on the chorus via overdubs sounding like REM on Quaaludes.
For the remainder Best adopts a sound not dissimilar to that of Uncle Tupelo, a dry alt-country manner driving the songs. His portraits of characters and situations on Aunt Ramona, Career Day and Robert Cole (songs he says that almost wrote themselves) are keen observations delivered in finest “No Depression” style although there is some tenderness in here as well such as on the mandolin and fiddle laced Queen Bee. He bares his soul on the weeping ballad Clotine, a love song of sorts (that could provide several months’ work for a psychoanalyst) it’s beautifully crafted and flows with a wonderful sense of regret and longing.
The album ends with the plaintive It Is You, another gem with Best’s words and gruff voice perfectly offset by his very fine players, the fiddle emotive, pedal steel gently caressing while his harmonica solo is a model of perfection. Throughout the album the musicians (including Ralph White of the Bad Livers on fiddle, Petra Kelly on violin, Andy Rodgers, Boxcar Bandits, on banjo, Scott Danborn from Centromatic on piano, Burton Lee pedal steel, Grady Don Sandlin drums, Drew Phelps bass and Claude Bernand from the Gourds on accordion) are on top form while Best handles acoustic and electric guitars with some aplomb. Altogether, Your Dog, Champ is perfectly positioned as a late contender for one of the best albums of the year and plans are afoot for Best to tour the UK early next year to promote the album.