(Howlin’ Dog, CD)
Northeast Kingdom’s Highway Bar Music is a brand-new entrant into Vermont’s crowded Americana scene. The countrified boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Ryan Arthur and Elisabeth Kaldor began as a studio side project nearly two years ago, but they didn’t play their first show until January of this year, at Burlington’s Radio Bean. That show also served as a release party for their debut EP, Side Room Serenade.
The EP was recorded in the side room of a double-wide mobile home, hence the title. And as those humble surroundings might suggest, the disc is a rather low-rent affair, thematically speaking. That’s hardly a novelty in country music, of course. But while the EP boasts some blue-collar credibility, that authenticity ultimately proves superficial, as its five songs are limp imitations of the classic and outlaw country heroes the duo parrots.
Side Room gets under way with “Mama Don’t Approve,” which apparently wants to be a contemporary companion — or at least an homage — to the Merle Haggard classic “Mama Tried.” “Turned into a hedonist and Mama don’t approve,” sings Caldor with a signature pitchy warble. At times her off-key ruminations exhibit a kind of reckless, hillbilly charm, especially on lines such as “On my day off, I drink beer in my bathing suit.” But by song’s end, lighthearted zeal devolves into redneck stereotypes so trashy and awkwardly phrased they almost feel like parody.
Relief is slow in coming. Where Kaldor’s delivery is stilted and almost uniformly out of tune, Arthur’s is stilted and only slightly less out of tune. The pandering to country platitudes is still intact, though — if not heightened to uncomfortable new levels. On “Old Bones” Arthur sings in an overly earnest growl, “Drinkin’ and pain, they was my weakness in life. / Worked fifty hours a week just to get by. / But on Friday night, I’d go to the townie bar. / Life was always grand there. / Yeah, for sure.”
And it gets worse.
If Christopher Guest were to give the Spinal Tap/Mighty Wind treatment to country music, the result might sound a lot like the wince-inducing duet “Fight Like Cats and Dogs.”
The following track, “Badness,” um … lives up to its name, with Arthur miscast in the role of a barroom badass.
Finally, the cliché carousel comes to a stop with “Dirty & Dragged Down.” As with each track before it, the hackneyed phrases come fast and furious, and Kaldor’s delivery is predictably awkward and off key.
Side Room Serenade could almost work as a satire, were it not so obviously a labor of love. Sadly, it functions as little more than an unfortunate first attempt.