Feb 17, 2023, 05:57AM

Don't You Come Back Without a Twelve-Point Buck

Great new country music from the Gibson Brothers and Elle King.

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Characterizing myself as bipolar would amount to a false claim of expertise in a psychology. But bipolar or not, I’ve wavered Lately between two entirely different moods. In one, I’m happy, energetic, and highly problematic. I'm rowdy and fun and just a little crazy. In the other, I’m melancholy, living a sad life of longing for things that’ve passed and can never be again. On this pole, Crispy is wistful, yearning, and deep as a motherfucker.

Now, were the diagnosis confirmed by responsible professionals, lithium and SSRIs might be prescribed. But I've always used music. It strikes me that the emotional oscillation iscaused by the fact that my listening habits have disintegrated and that I only listen, back and forth, to two albums (well, and two EPs, reviewed below). I thought my distress was coming from me, was a matter of chemical imbalance among my neurotransmitters. But really it was coming from my Bluetooth speaker, as it often does.

Circa 1997-2017, the Gibson Brothers were one of the top acts in bluegrass (There may be several groups known as the Gibson Brothers, including some French funksters, these are not those Gibson Brothers.) They seemed to put out an album every year and won awards. Their basic style focused on slower songs of love and loss, performed with an exquisite and very distinctive style of vocal harmony that was connected to the great "brother acts" (the Monroe Brothers or Jim and Jesse McReynolds, for example). These quiet albums also featured a lot of the best players in bluegrass, as well as Leigh and Eric's guitars. I'm usually not sure which one is singing or playing which part.

In 2018, though, the Gibsons departed from bluegrass and, like a lot of great “legacy” artists, recorded an eclectic country album with Dan Auerbach. Sometimes these Auerbach sessions really work, as on his albums with Loretta Lynn and John Anderson. But Mockingbird didn't work at all, and it was truer to Auerbach's style (it sounded kind of like that Yola album) than the Gibson Brothers'. Then they disappeared for five years. I kept checking every few months for a new album, thinking there just had to be a return to bluegrass and recording.

I'm still not sure what was going on, but Darkest Hour might be their best effort. Alternating between bluegrass (acoustic, no drums, mandolin and fiddle as the major instrumental voices) and country (pedal steel, drums, bass guitar), the album is beautiful. Let it sneak up on you, or let them sneak up on you: it takes a little basting for the mood to pervade and the excellence to register. The producer is the great Jerry Douglas, the resonator guitar master and central figure in bluegrass over the last half-century. Putting it mildly, Douglas is more on the brothers' wavelength than Auerbach. You don't spend the record noticing the production choices.

I’m probably unable to convey the Gibson Effect in words. But could I get you to listen to two blue songs? Heart's Desire and the title cut.

Elle King's new album Come Get Your Wife has a completely different emotional and tonal valence, but a similar excellence. King strikes me as one of the most distinctive people working in popular music now. She's the daughter of the comedian Rob Schneider, a fact I still can't quite assimilate. She can be funny, though. And amazingly rowdy. And I don't think there's any gainsaying the fact that she can really sing, almost anything anywhere near rock 'n’ roll. Sometimes she's sounded like Janis, sometimes like Cyndi. Then a bit of Erykah. It hardy seems possible. Elle's has been a pop star for a while now, her career song in that vein is Ex's and Ohs from 2014.

She's sidled up to country for years, and keeps showing up as a feature on records or awards shows. She's worked her way into the Miranda Lambert circle, where the best country happens. But if it had occurred to someone (me, for instance) that she was an interloper, Come Get Yor Wife proves someone wrong. She sings country like a master. Maybe that southern drawl is a bit exaggerated (she grew up in California and Ohio). It sounds completely, effortlessly right to me.

Also, there are great songs here across a wide range of country styles, and the emergence of a memorable kick-ass persona who’s also capable of moving people. Country is in a renewed traditionalist phase, and this album—which should sustain billions of streams—is yet another sign of that. The two songs with featured guests here (the #1 "Drunk and I Don't Want to Go Home" with Lambert and "One Shot" with Dierks Bentley) are by far the poppiest, as though she's trying to help Miranda and Dierks get onto the pop charts. These are the weakest songs on the album, but. I like them too.

But there are traditionalist stunners here that should put Elle on the Opry stage whenever she wants to be. There's just no doubt: Elle King is “Bonafide"[https://youtu.be/6Jpl_m4VgAA]. That song goes all the way in a certain direction, and that's what King does: all the way in a certain direction (even crazy) with total commitment. I feel like she’s singing for me or as me. She might go all the way down into sin, for example, but then all the way into redemption. And then she might give you a quietly perfect rendering of a quietly perfect Tyler Childers song.

Ping-ponging emotionally between Gibson and King for a couple of weeks left me pining, as one does, for psychosurgery. So here are a couple of way stations on the emotional journey. How about the new EP "The Way You Break a Heart" by a young woman named Belles, which is a good name. My partner thinks that Belles has told our story in You Made a Man Outta Me, which really fucking pisses me off.

So maybe we'll shift to Mackenzie Carpenter's wonderful EP Don't Mess With Exes. If they heard it once, a lot of country boys would never listen to anything ever again but Huntin' Season, in which Carpenter, the niftiest blonde you ever saw, gives her man permission to go off hunting every year so she can be alone or talk about feelings with her fellow women. "Don't you come back without a twelve-point buck," she specifies. A true country love story, in short.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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