The Minus Five
The Minus Five
2006
B+



for all its gun imagery and lyrical violence, the key line on the Minus Five’s self-titled new album (destined to be referred to as The Gun Album) comes on its anomalously fuzzed-out rocker of a second track. Over a perfect one-chord neanderthal riff head Minusman Scott McCaughey declares himself “just another fucker with a midlife crisis” and shrugs out the titular chorus: “Aw shit, man.” The song burns itself into cinders before hitting the two-minute mark, but McCaughey shouts without any particular urgency: this album is his portrait of the midlife meltdown as the great unrecorded Beatles album, and he’s got 11 tracks to go before sinking into beer-soaked oblivion.

It’s also the best thing McCaughey’s ever done in his reasonably accomplished career. He’s still down with Wilco, but he’s no longer young, and his life feels less fresh than the air in Houston—one of the grim contact points of the album’s geography, along with Birmingham, Death Valley, and Cemetery Row. McCaughey wanders this desolate landscape with only with his firearms, cigarettes, coffee, and booze. Well, that and a backup army of indie-rock all-stars ready to go to war for the frizzy-haired genius, or at least to the garage to bash out another three-minute masterpiece.

McCaughey gives them plenty to work with here. Lacing up desperation in pretty melodic wrapping is hardly a new concept, but few have done it better. The Minus Five have sporadically indulged in it since their debut, but whereas, say, “All the Time” on Old Liquidator gave a gorgeous song the Sister Lovers treatment, submerging it under various clangs and bleating horns, The Gun Album generally adheres to a more straightforward sonic blueprint, closer to Abbey Road in its retro-pop ambitions. Indeed, John Lennon seems to be the inspiration here—we get McCaughey contemplating whether “happiness is warm” on the first track, and enough guns follow to win this album some kind of NRA award. Songs come decked out in organs, steel pedal guitars, keyboards, and whatever else was sitting around the garage that day. Echo-laden production with soft drums bouncing off keyboard chords and McCaughey’s Lennonesque vocals give “My Life as a Creep” a “Watching the Wheels” feel, but rarely does the album sound like theft—only the guitar line to “Out There on the Maroon” cribs directly from the Beatles, and even then it’s from “Birthday.” Those EMI lawyers may have shut down The Grey Album, but fat chance of claiming copyright on a simple scale.

Underneath its rich and tasteful exterior, The Gun Album offers surprisingly sharp bitterness. From the first track, on which McCaughey sings, “This rifle called goodbye is all that I can shoulder anymore” before arriving at “One bullet wins the race / The Bible chucked into the fireplace,” these songs refuse to traffic in pathos. “Out There on the Maroon” might present McCaughey as a loveable loser sharing a favorite drink with Lebowski (“I had six white Russians tonight, and two of them were people”), but the jarring “With a Gun” puts a new spin on the persona. Over a jaunty melody McCaughey informs a partner, “I’ll kick your sister’s ass / I’m going to take your brother’s face and smash it in the grass.” “I’m so loaded, chambers spinning round,” he adds, and any vestigial drunkard’s charm vanishes quickly. By “Leftover Life to Kill” dreams themselves are written in blood; they “don’t coagulate.” And with “Bought a Rope” McCaughey reaches a new level of creepiness, letting a lover know, “I never want to let you go, and that’s why I bought this rope.” This all happens amidst much drinking, further gun references, and imagery such as “a seabird rotting in the sand.” It’s chilling, grim and desperate, and it all sounds quite lovely, a chocolate-covered cyanide pill begging to be swallowed.

McCaughey clearly learned a thing or two as a hired hand for R.E.M., whose “The One I Love” still gets played at weddings despite the emotional fascism of its lyrics. That band’s Peter Buck has been a Minus Fiver from the start, and though the “pistolsmithing” credits give no idea as to who did what here, there’s enough jangly guitar to make his presence clear (it’s nice to know he still exists, since I’m not entirely convinced he even played on the last two R.E.M. albums, which sounded as if the band decided to bypass the middleman by recording straight for Muzak).

The rest of the Minus Five army covers a vast range, including members of everything from Harvey Danger to Ministry. Wilco shows up to countrify a few songs, and Colin Meloy Decemberizes the endearingly bleak “Cemetery Row W14.” I assume Ken Stringfellow (of Posies fame) plays bass, since there’s a picture on the band’s Web site of him doing so (and he fingers the four-string for Big Star in the rest of his spare time), but who knows—for that matter, I could swear I hear Dave Pirner on backing vocals on “Twilight Distillery,” but he’s not part of the crew. At any rate, a review could exhaust itself unraveling the M5 nexus, but it’s McCaughey’s show all the way.

To avoid Beatle saturation, The Gun Album finds time for a closing rockabilly-tinted number, and on “Hotel Senator” it even seems to pay heed to the great forgotten 1980s indie-pop (or pedant-rock, to any haters) of Game Theory, whose classic “Friends of the Family” informs the song’s icy metallic sheen and threatening, obliquely political lyrics. Of the album’s 13 tracks, not one feels like filler. If McCaughey’s anything like his songwriting persona, he’d probably take his shot at greatness and fire it into the broad side of a barn, if not his own skull. This mean, wonderful little album hands him the bullet.


Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-02-27
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