There's a glut of country/folk artists in present-day Austin. You know it, I know it. I happen to love country music. I've always liked the old stuff (or new traditionalists like Freakwater, Richard Buckner, Giant Sand, and so forth) but my appreciation for the polished commercial version of Nashville music has risen in the past few years from an odd source. I'm a big "American Idol" fan (we'll talk about that more in January), and the country-themed weeks and the contestants who attempt to brand themselves in that genre are a nice break from all of the tepid Top 40 tunes. Modern commercial country can be pretty broad and creamy, but for whatever reason it's remained a discipline where professional songwriters (as opposed to singer/composers) dominate and that means that even if the songs are formulaic at least they're complete, with choruses that flow logically out of the verses, structures that build to climax, and instrumental hooks in addition to vocal ones. For years I used to say the only kind of music I really had no use for was modern radio-friendly country and I don't feel that way at all any more. Keeping an open mind is important as a musician and as a music listener. You could learn a valuable lesson anywhere. And Nickel Creek's Pavement cover is better than the original. There, I said it.
I don't think I have to go out of my way to explain my appreciation for Andrew Anderson's As Long as Thing's Flyin'. On a facetious level, the record has the trappings of current country-rock. Lyrically there's a predominance of mentions for sin and whiskey, and the acoustic guitar changes are what you would expect. But Anderson and his extremely talented bandmates, drummer Luke Meade and and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Harris, have gone out of their way to complete a record that's full of personal expression and memorable, individualist touches. Even the packaging is better than the norm: Rather than a jewelbox with a piece of paper inside, Flyin' comes in a really lovely cardstock case with elegant screenprinted artwork. CD's have been rendered a mere delivery system for digital content, to be ripped and discarded, but here the artist has created something worth keeping. The simple but iconic inner sleeve design and the band photographs all work together to give another perspective on the music on the disc.
The songs, like the sleeve, are simple at first glance. Anderson is an instinctive songwriter with a direct lyrical and musical approach. His most distinguishing tendency as a singer is to not let the constraints of meter interfere with his ideas; he moves rhyme schemes and rhythms around in cool ways. While his songs aren't packed wall-to-wall with weird changes, there's more harmonic movement than is usual for work in this style. What really separates As Long as This Thing's Flyin' is the arrangements, for which Meade and Harris deserve equal credit. Meade engineered the record in addition to drumming on it, co-producing with the rest of the band, and Flyin' really sounds like a professional, finished album. There are different production approaches to introduce songs (the scratchy, back-porch quality to "The One I Left Behind" at its opening) and clever transitions (a raunchy pick slide bridges "Wait Darlin'" and "Hell on Earth"). Meade also has a style on the drums that's unusually aggressive for country-rock, but never too loud, distracting, or inappropriate. His ability to play busy, heavy fills and then zip back into a shuffling backbeat is one of the many subtle elements that makes the album distinctive.
Harris is a one-man wrecking crew, playing proficient and reliably tasteful parts on electric guitar, banjo, and dobro. He's clearly a prodigy, but what really sets him apart is his ability to moderate his attack to leave Anderson's vocals their proper space in the mix. "Wait Darlin'" has an amazing dry lead guitar riff that gives way to a related but gentler banjo lick when the vocals come in; that's only one example of how Harris harnesses his tremendous talent to make Anderson's songs come across more strongly. The trio work together beautifully. Meade is equally willing to lay back and provide just a shaker or a lone kick drum if that's what best suits the song.
At 14 tracks As Long as This Thing's Flyin' starts to retrace its own steps in the back end. There are some nice cello additions here and there, but the group does tend to stay in one mood for each piece and the stronger songs are crowded towards the front of the running order. That means a few later pieces come over like weaker developmental versions of what we've already heard. They would benefit from having a real bass player, too; Anderson and Harris's efforts at the instrument sound like the competent work of good musicians but don't give the extra shape and texture of a true bassist born -- there's a lot of root notes just doubling the guitars. I think Anderson and his group have the imagination and the skill to broaden their sound in both directions. Meade's rock chops could allow them to sound convincing on heavier electric numbers, but there's also a knowledge of old-world modes at work here that suggests they could try some more overtly folk sounds and pull it off. From the basis of Harris's cello arrangements, I'd love to hear what he could create with a full-blown string quartet. Lyrically, Anderson is much stronger when he's clearly drawing from personal experience ("Once Met a Girl," "Old Dusty Trail") than when he's trying to sing in someone else's shoes (the slightly awkward "Send the Bastard Running"). What's important is that he's writing songs about different subjects and from different perspectives, something that will keep his material consistently improving. With Meade and Harris in the fold, he's got to keep his game up to meet the challenge of providing songs worthy enough for players this good and this smart.