Hayes Carll: “KMAG YOYO”

I love the cover of Hayes Carll’s new album, KMAG YOYO. The Texas troubadour appears on it wearing a sweater adorned with stripes– red, white, and blue– and a smattering of stars, but it isn’t quite a replica of the American flag– it’s more of an approximation, the balance of the colors not entirely right, the pattern not entirely  accurate. And so it is with the music contained in the package: It’s a slice of Americana through and through, but it isn’t played entirely straight; it’s filtered through the sometimes-sober, sometimes-goofy personality of our singer, songwriter, and tourguide, who calls this album a collection of “American stories” but leaves it too the listener to determine which are tall tales, which are autobiographies, and which are simply slices of life on the lone highway.

Carll also looks a little crazy-eyes and frazzled on the disc– like maybe he’s been through something pretty wild and doesn’t know how much of the story he ought repeat, especially within ear shots of lady folk or cops– and his cowboy boots, kicked off in front of him, indicate that he’s ready to really let loose. And boy is he ever. KMAG is nothing if not a road album, inspired by several years of relentless touring, fueled by the singer’s interplay with his crackerjack band, and bristling with energy, humor, and stories so strange and so familiar they could only have happened in America. This is, in other words– and with due respect to his very fine previous albums, including the lovely and strongly-written Trouble in Mind— the loosest, wildest, funniest, and most varied Hayes Carll album yet– and yeah, clearly, his best. It is also, to my ears, this year’s equivalent of last year’s sensational Elizabeth Cook album, Welder— which is to say, a country album that digs deep into tradition but refracts history through the artist’s own quirky worldview.

There’s a lot of hardcore country stuff here, and also stuff that seems to summon something of the ramshackle energy and myth-making spirit of The Basement Tapes. (Would you believe this guy has the balls to write a lyric about Dylan being overrated?) The album opener is a statement of intent, a thrashing barroom brawler called “Stomp and Holler,” about a struggling street musician who really needs to make a buck, but needs even more urgently to simply stir up a shit-kicking ruckus. If the song’s a portrait of Hayes himself, he can rest assured: He and his band, The Poor Choices, bring the ruckus in a big way. Choice lyric: “I’m like James Brown only white and taller/ And all I wanna do is stomp and holler.” The thing just gets better from there.

The hard times that provide the context for the opening number come into even sharper focus in the follow-up, a drunken everyman sing-along called “Hard Out There” that lurches along with inebriated glee and is even sharper and funnier than the first song. It’s a terrific down-on-my-luck country number that’s so timeless in its feel, it could have been written by Hank Williams; it’s also so spontaneous in its sound that it could have erupted at some local dive just last night. Carll’s gift on these “American stories” is in his ability to draw the universal out of the specific– like how, in these opening songs, the current economic tumult is clearly the inspiration, but the stories told could have happened basically any time since the Great Depression. The same goes on “Another Like You,” an absolutely uproarious, skewered take on the he-said/she-said duet form in which Carll plays a hard-drinking Democrat who inadvertently flirts with Cary Ann Hearst’s chain-smoking Republican. The song pokes fun at the nation’s charged political climate but is really more about doomed-to-fail romances– and, as Carll notes, the huge rifts that can be bridged by booze and sex. Carll hams it up big-time, but his writing is anything but corny; it’s a precisely-written and exactingly funny song that also includes the first of two rather bald-faced oral sex puns on the album.

The record’s hard-times motif is really thrown into a blender on the title cut, a fast-paced rock number that sound like one of Dylan’s half-sung rambles as filtered through a monotone Michael Stipe rap. Here the singer plays the role of a young military buck who volunteers to be a guinea pig for some rather sketchy army-sanctioned experiments– anything for some quick cash, and all that. But if that song shows just how off-kilter this fella’ can be, he also proves he can get stunning results simply by sticking to country music convention: An album highlight is “Chances Are,” a wrenching, steel-drenched lover’s lament that’s so classic-country in its sound, it could have been played by either Willie or Waylon in their prime– and if you don’t believe me, just listen to the thing. Carll hinges the whole thing on the sort of turn of phrase that could have formed the basis of a Brad Paisley song, actually, but where Paisley is sentimental and a little cornpone, Carll’s song earns tough emotions through its vivid writing. By contrast, the blazing dancefloor rocker “The Loving Cup” turns country tropes on their head– it’s a love-gone-wrong song with a terrific twist ending (and oral sex joke #2).

There is some folksier stuff here as well, including an autobiographical, message-from-the-road number called “The Letter” that is actually very touching, a funny and bluegrass-flecked musician’s confession called “Bottle in Hand,” and, best of all, a really tender and funny and sad song called “Grateful for Christmas This Year,” really a country weepy but with writing so literary and fleshed-out that it shuns sentimentality in favor of real emotional depth, addressing memory and family, tradition and the ravages of time, and holding your attention with each and every word.

By the way: Apparently, KMAG YOYO is an army acronym, standing for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re on Your Own.” I didn’t know that before getting this album, and Carll wasn’t really telling; he explained it in the press release but not in the song itself, leaving the listener to either figure it out for himself or simply go with the flow of the singer’s oddball sense of humor. Either way, you’ll have a blast with the album. This is good, strong, hard country music for 2011, a stellar effort from a singer/songwriter who’s grown leaps and bounds, and a batch of American short stories for now and for always.


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