One of America?s best kept secrets is the Volebeats. Dating back to the end of the Paisley Underground and the beginning of the so called No Depression era in alt-country, the Detroit natives have always been a bit hard to pin down. They started as a sort of sidewalk skiffle band that quickly found its own unique voice on their first album, "Ain?t no Joke," which jangled and lulled with a mysterious kind of mid-late 60s twang pop. Between Matthew Smith and Bob McCreedy?s haunting guitar work, Jeff Oakes? glorious baritone, and their combined harmonies, you might think you?d stumbled across some lost link between the golden age of country psych or what Gram Parsons called ?Cosmic American Music? and modern day, folk infused art pop.
Lots of bands have been praised lately for ?revitalizing? this kind of music, but these guys have been doing it for over 15 years. Only problem is the Voles come from a town known for its anarcho proto punk and Motown more than invoking the wide open vistas of the Southwest. Not too surprising that by the mid to late 90s, only a serious fan of vintage twang and underground pop might know who they are. It took a recommendation from a visiting New Zealander (Brian Crook for you Renderers fans) to tip me off.
One of the more pleasing aspects with the Voles, aside from the fact that they crank out lost gem after gem of bittersweet originals, is their selection and implementation of cover songs. In the past, they?ve worked soul magic with Barry White?s ?I?m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby? (released on an EP called, you guessed it, "Bittersweet") and reinvented a little Walker Brothers ballad from ?65 (?First Love Never Dies?) as a country rock masterwork on "The Mosquito Spiral."
"Country Favorites" (not to be confused with Willie Nelson?s album of the same name, or a dozen others) is half a follow-up to their previous "Mosquito Spiral" LP (Third Gear) and half a covers album, giving the fan of vintage psych and twang a chance to rediscover some old gems and maybe even realize that Slayer knows how to write a good dustbowl epic. The originals ring with the same restless vibe that characterized the last album (and really, all of them). Songwriting and singing duties are mostly divided between Smith, McCreedy and Oakes, then blended seamlessly and sequenced with a slightly surprising stretch of covers, including a power-pop version of Roky Erickson?s ?I Had to Tell You.? Of course, the covers selection really comes as no surprise at all to one familiar with the Voles unique approach. They play the kind of country rock where anything is possible, including transforming ABBA?s ?Knowing Me, Knowing You? into a vintage mid 60s Byrdsian break up anthem. Smith?s own ?Standing Next to You? captures the same vibe with sad song about stumbling across an old picture which may as well be a different world now.
McCreedy?s ?318? is one of the few non-defeated moments on "Country Favorites," with a snappy chorus and rousing extended Shadows styled leads from Smith. Of course, by the end of the song you realize it?s about a car, but never you mind. McCreedy raises the metaphor to the heavens with his words: ?My friends, we hope you can see. / It?s not where we?re goin? that sets us free. / It?s the way that she runs. / It?s the way that she sounds. / That takes us on to another town.?
And there is more, from sad paeans to a fading past to a bleak take of Slayer?s ?Die by the Sword? that recasts the original thrash monster (from their debut album some 21 years ago) as a stark folk psych allegory for the damned, and it?s something to behold, my cursed brothers and sisters. Add to that a faithful rendition of the York Brothers hoedown ?Hamtramck Mama? and a seriously dusted take on ?Maggot Brains? that sounds like something Floyd might?ve composed on a really good night in ?72, and you?ve got yourself some essential listening. There?s even a Gainsbourg cover. How hip! 8/10 -- Lee Jackson (25 May, 2005)