Sunday, April 12, 2009


Cue list: The Boxmasters, The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation

Boxmasters girl: Dancing quim is here again.

"The Boxmasters are really a combination of the Beatles, the Monkees and the Turtles with Del Reeves and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard -- all put together."

That's quite a bundle of hooey from Billy Bob Thornton, delivered with the press from last year's Boxmasters double CD on Vanguard.

However, as something that was Bonzo Dog Band-esque -- a humorous, sardonic and loving take on music Thornton actually wished to play for people to hear, it was easy to get behind. Thornton said he was into Frank Zappa & the Mothers, too, which one also 'gets' if you knew and liked Cruising With Ruben & The Jets and FZ's talent for R&B.

With regards to the Bonzo Dog Band -- The Boxmasters didn't do -the English humour- at all. But the acknowledgement that one has to write catchy songs, good enough to maybe make Paul McCartney show up to play or produce under an alias, all the more to make the jokey stories stick, is. In place of English scouser, Thornton is a southern lower middle class/lower class heel, a character he was born to show us.

"The Poor House" -- the Boxmasters debut song, played infrequently in its video version on county music cable networks, was the debut's best. Its hook was undeniable and one could hear (as well as see if viewing the sent-to-Country Music Television version) Thornton mugging his way through the lyrics. "Shit List" and "I'm Watchin' The Game" were also sticky. The only quibble, and a small one, was often Billy Bob sounded as if reading lyrics from a teleprompter, a band with overplaying pedal steel player providing the backing. Part of this may have been intentional.

As for getting a sound like the Beatles vintage records, it's not precisely so. The spirit was right but the actual tone, while carefully vintage, didn't sound like a George Martin production. Boxmasters production was darker and buried in tape slap and reverberation that's truly Sixties, but much more USA than UK.

Thornton covered Mott the Hoople's "Original Mixed-Up Kid" in terrific manner but a version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," meant to be equally reverential, was ... well, it was what you'd expect from a band of hillbilly rednecks. One expected a cover of the Who's "The Kids are All Right" to blow, on paper seemingly a perfect recipe for crap. Astoundingly, it worked.

Billy Bob's voice was old time hardware store manager by day, pool hall and barroom singer by night. Segues plugged up the spaces between the tracks. It sounded like funeral parlor music, some old church organ, the tinny music of a roller rink, drums galloping off on a tangent, vocal muttering, snips of dialogue from a movie which Thornton was in, or maybe not. If Billy Bob, "Bud" for the Boxmasters, wanted you to laugh and tap your feet to his record, he succeeded.

For Modbilly, the Boxmasters' second double-CD effort (there was a Xmas special, too), Thornton gets to the Turtles, via a cover of "Elenore" and Del Reeves. Better is a ringing and wistful take on the Stones' "As Tears Go By."

For this one, much more chime and Merseybeat is furnished with somewhat less lap and pedal steel, making Modbilly less cornpone by a few degrees. And half the originals are about life loss and heartbreak, sincerely delivered.

"Heartbreakin' Wreck" and "That's Why Tammy Has My Car" now remind DD of Hee-haw and Roy Clark although TV would've never allowed for the profanity: "I'm a moron/I'm a dumbass" in the chorus of the latter, with the band gleefully seconding, "He's a dumbass!" Listen close on "Reasons for Livin'" and hear Billy Bob sing about liver disease and the venereal sore on his lip.

Once past the nods to the British Invasion, much of Modbilly sounds like The Outlaws' first record, less the two Les Pauls and one Strat going full throat which, tonally, changes things quite a bit. However, the delivery and taste in American roots music and Brit pop groups are similar. Songs in question: "New Mexico," "You Crossed the Line," "Santa Rosa" -- all could have been done by the Outlaws, which is to say some of Modbilly also sounds like New Riders of the Purple Sage -- only better.

Thornton's vintage rock and pop tones are all carved and in place. In promo pics everyone poses with their old Ampeg amps, including the unique flip-top one for bass. (Cuban boots are required.) There's a rack of Fender Telecasters, fitting the record's Duane Eddy twangy guitar tone. The box set comes with drink coasters printed with Tiger Beat-like profiles on their backs and a poster with the dancing girls.

"Fav Chicks:" Ann Margaret, Suzanne Pleshette, etc, they read, among other timely things. I did have such a crush on Suzanne. Is this not the very essence of fun?

On paper, the Boxmasters express great loyalty to the Monkees. Someone insists their favorite movie is 'Head,' stretching credulity (have you ever watched 'Head' at length without squirming or drinking too much? DD has -- more than twice) but is nonetheless entertaining to read. This is somewhat backed up by furnishing the complete with finger-snaps "Boxmasters Theme" at the end, meant to accompany a notional TV show.

Thornton must be single-handedly adding asterisks and change to Mike Nesmith's royalty statements from his singer/songwriter work apart from the Monkees. If there is a Mike Nesmith folk rock tribute band, Boxmasters is it.

In any case, half of the appeal of Boxmasters records is Billy Bob Thornton's knack for wry avuncularity. If you've half a brain, the stuff is genuinely funny, not only for the stories told but also for the image of the dapper and suited-up Sixties combo act (these boys look very clean), a group hopeful perhaps of getting on the Opry stage, with good songs about trying to get out of debt to the mob and being kicked out of the house for being a moron. Modbilly delivers much more sincerity than the debut. The Boxmasters have switched from being a US country rock version of the Rutles or the Stones or Herman's Hermits to a real band which color codes its guitars -- turquoise on the debut, pastel green on Modbilly, sunburst for the back cover art.

Choruses are delivered, half the time characteristically droll and chuckling, followed by sly Telecaster and drum fills in the turnarounds. There are no other records yet this year aimed so fanatically at thrilling the hard-to-reach 'over thirty' fans of the sound. Brad Paisley, who like Thornton is a conversational story-teller, needs to either hear the Boxmasters or take them on tour. But he may not want to. Modbilly is a better thing than Paisley's latest.

If you're wondering about the group name, DD once had a teenage close confidant in Pine Grove, Pennsyltucky. He went by the name of 'Box.' Even though he had rotten teeth, 'Box' was so entitled for synonymity with quim, as in getting in it. OK? He was a flawed lady's man at eighteen, an object of awe at Pine Grove Area High School. Even when slippery or repugnant, some guys just have it.

Special message to Billy Bob: No one who knows anything's gonna believe Boxmasters are like Mott the Hoople until we get a few guitar lines ala Mick Ralphs, Luther or Mick Ronson. That said, Bud -- you oughta tell the publicists: "Guy Stevens produced Mott, sort of." Really Bud, you haven't yet delivered anything like 'Rock 'n' Roll Queen' or 'Death May Be Your Santa Claus' or the Ian Hunter as Bob Dylan shtick.

Also for your consideration, SPV's reissues of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, one of the combos from the British blues boom that didn't make it. Cover art all by Hipgnosis well before it was hip. The Retaliation imitated all the people that did better, often so good you can't tell it's not the originals. For a couple songs you swear it's Savoy Brown, for another Ten Years After, the production made to sound like Mike Vernon was providing perfection at the desk.

The first album (simply called The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation) has "Chevrolet" retitled as "Watch and Chain." Foghat, or rather the guys who were then the core of Savoy Brown, would get much more mileage out of it years later in American stadiums.

Dr. Dunbar's Prescription was their second and most successful. It looks like a psychedelic acid trip LP -- which probably sold most of the copies -- but it's still mid-tempo white boy blooz with a heavy dose of Lee Michaels-like Hammond organ. If you're a fanatic for this type of undercard small venue Brit stuff -- thumping lugubrious but also very hard man delivered blues rock with commanding singer, these reissues fill the bill. Competition was fierce and the success of Cream and Led Zeppelin in '69 guaranteed everyone wanted their piece of the action.

Liner notes are complete with standard assertions that the Retaliation was going down gangbusters at the Fillmores in 'Merica when the record company pulled the plug. Assuredly, that must have been so.


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