As the old saying goes, country music was always here and always will be. And thanks to the inter-connected, internet-savvy world we now inhabit, it’s no longer the reserve of bona fide Stetson-tippers. Everyone from British pensioners to Japanese teenagers are grabbing acoustics and making country music, and a lot of it is very good. Country Lips are part of this new breed. The Seattle-based renegades are inspired by the old-school upbeat luminaries like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, and boast a pair of lively releases in ‘Nothing To My Name’ and ‘Touched’. Unfortunately, their third release ‘Till The Daylight Comes’ is less of a passionate back-of-the-saloon snog and more of a peck on the cheek on your grandmother’s porch. There are points in the album to be praised. At fully eight members, the instrumentation is predictably lavish. A whiskey-powered cacophony ripped straight from the stage of some backroads dive bar, and rightly so. The ever-present accordion-swells of Gus Clark are an especially nice touch, giving their sound a Louisiana twist. The guitars twang just right, the piano is honking and a-tonking, and the vocals are authentically slurred.
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The album’s problem is in the song-writing. It shoots a straight bullseye in aping the sound and style of its influences, but when it tries to match their catchiness the sun is in its eyes. Songs like ‘Grizzly Bear Billboard’ and ‘Bar Time’ tread all the right steps but fail in the follow-through. Plod-along verses lead to unfulfilling choruses, where the vocal-line and guitars are left stumbling about like drunkards in a desperate search for a hook. It works fine as background music for a small-town watering hole, but there’s nothing that’ll stick with you to whistle on the walk home.
The lyrics fall short of their ambition too. Country was never meant to be Shakespeare, but where John Prine and George Strait work in witticism, wordplay, and homespun wisdom, the lyrics here are little more than stock phrases. All the obligatory references to hard work, whiskey and women are there in ‘Reason I’m Drinking’ and ‘Friday’s My Friday’ but there’s no grit to it. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings hid their barely-veiled rowdiness behind radio-friendly masks, but Country Lips comes across as a little too safe. They claim to be outlaws, but this album paints them (quite unfairly) as pretenders.
In Country Lips’ defence, perhaps they’re more raucous in a live setting. Tracks like ‘Holding Out’, with a galloping backbeat and several solos, have the capacity to shine with the gusto of a beer-swilling live crowd. But as things stand, ‘Daylight’ is a tragically unambitious effort from a band with a lot of potential. In the words of country legend Darrell Scott, “They sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard. They got money but they don’t have Cash.”