In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the best novel ever written with pop music as a subtext, the protagonist poses a question: Is he obsessed with rock ’n’ roll because he’s such a failure at love, or is he a failure at love because he’s obsessed with rock songs? Does his difficulty with women explain why he relates so strongly to songs about broken hearts and shattered relationships, or has his fixation with those songs subconsciously predestined him toward screwing up every good connection he’s ever made? “What came firstthe music or the misery?” asks the book’s central character, Rob. “Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?”
Rob has well-developed taste in musichis favorite artists include Neil Young, Elvis Costello, John Prine, and Aretha Franklinso he likely would have freaked when he discovered the balls-out rock ’n’ roll of Bare Jr. Rob would have loved the Nashville quintet’s fresh interpretation of garage rock, which refashions 40 years of white-trash guitar riffs. The clincher, though, would have come with how Rob related to the songs on Bare Jr.’s major-label debut, Boo-Tay, for much of the material draws unsparingly on bandleader Bobby Bare Jr.’s hapless love life.
Bare Jr. supplies all the goods that a dysfunctional rock ’n’ roll obsessive desires: songs about catastrophic relationships put across with a ferocious rawness. By album’s end, Bare’s songs collectively pose their own philosophical question: Is the protagonist a loser who becomes obnoxious because he can’t hold onto a girlfriend, or do all his girlfriends leave because he’s an obnoxious loser?
“Every relationship I’ve ever been in has been very lopsided,” says the band’s singer and songwriter. “They were hard to go through but fun to write about.”
Of course, rock is more about feel than subject matter. And Boo-Tay is one hell of a fist-pumping, belly-laughing, air-guitar-playing good time. With a couple of exceptions, the songs have all the delicacy of a whiskey-drenched bachelor party where the groom has passed out and the revelers are cranking their favorite songs by T. Rex and Tone Loc.
The album opens with “Nothing to Do,” a cranked-up Celtic sing-along in which Bare sings, “You dig me more than I dig myself/I’m in love with you because I’ve got nothing better to do.” The rest of the album follows suit: a psychological horror show of self-loathing individuals who don’t know how to love. Whether Bare is singing “I hate myself when I should be hating you,” crowing that he’s “loveless,” or wondering if a just-departed ex-girlfriend is “trying something new with another guy who will do everything that you tell him to do,” his lyrics uniformly portray him as a basket case of conflicting desires. He’s a serial monogamist who repeatedly reaches out for love only to push it away once it’s within his grasp.
His songs also beg an interesting question: Can lyrics be labeled misogynistic when the songwriter is just as ugly toward himself as he is toward others? Certain Bare Jr. songs certainly test the line of good taste: There’s “The Most,” about a beautiful and wickedly cruel high-school girl who is not-so-secretly attracted to boys who rough her up. Then there’s the one about the self-destructive, promiscuous young woman who drunkenly dangles on the rail of a hotel balcony, screaming as she falls, “I wanna live!”
These songs may sound like they’re as much fun as a tape of suicide-prevention hotline calls, but it’s all in the presentation. And the bandsinger-guitarist Bare, guitarist Mike “Grimey” Grimes, electric dulcimer player Tracy Hackney, bassist Dean Tomasek, and drummer Keith Brogdonkeeps the emphasis on adrenalized, insanity-driven fun. It’s the ultimate rock ’n’ roll response to the difficulties of daily life: With the help of communal release, troubles can evaporate in a shared laugh or a loud rebel yell.
Perhaps that’s why Bare Jr. pairs his bleakest tales with his brashest, ballsiest tunes. The propulsive arrangements wed clanging guitars, noisy pop melodies, and a rhythm section that swings and stutters with stripped-down smarts. Above it all, Bare sings with an exaggerated gleefulness that makes even his darkest stories come across with an amusing, tongue-in-cheek quality.
For all the muscular boisterousness of the music and the clever theatrics of his voice, Bare makes sure to enunciate each word clearly. And when he goes over the topand, boy, does hehe joins such wild-eyed showmen as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, The Cramps’ Lux Interior, and any number of rappers in proving that there’s no limit to how much abuse a rock singer can wreak upon musical conventions and his own vocal chords. If Bare Jr.’s music has a modern-day equivalent, it’s the manic, roots-punk madness of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the crude, fuzz-bomb brashness of the early Beastie Boys.
For Bare, the clear enunciation leavens all of his extravagances. His songs may verge on offensiveness, but he’s an undeniably clever lyricist. Likewise, the band plays with down ’n’ dirty simplicity, but they’re clearly a capable and talented bunch who sneak deft changes and unexpected turns into every tune. But both songwriter and band are wise enough not to let their cleverness get in the way of the music’s primal punch.
That’s why the sum of the band is more than its novel premises. Bare, the son of veteran country singer Bobby Bare, credits his father and some of his father’s friendsespecially songwriter Shel Silverstein (“A Boy Named Sue,” “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”)as influences. But it’s obvious that he’s not using this connection to advance his own music. By the same token, the plugged-in dulcimer of Tracy Hackney is quirky on the surface, but the instrument is integral to the band’s demented, driving sound: When a dulcimer is run through an amp, its range can run from pinched and melodic to harshly, ringingly resonant.
For Bare Jr., turning the delicate dulcimer into an instrument of sonic destruction seems to fit the band’s purpose. Witness the final selection on Boo-Tay, a hidden track that comes several minutes after the desperate sobs of “Why Won’t You Love Me.” As a phone-machine message starts to play, the band generates a racket of escalating feedback. The woman’s voice is clear, and the message sounds quite real: “Bobby,” she begins, her tone obviously that of a pissed-off lover. “I can do without any more of your shit,” she says, stating that she’s “not sure if it hurts more knowing you’re an asshole or realizing the fact that you’ve been lying to me all along.” After a string of barbed epithets, she concludes, “Don’t call me. Don’t come up to me if you see me out. Don’t write me a letter. Don’t,” she lets out a fatigued sigh, “write me a song. And don’t send messages through your friends. Don’t do anything.”
After that, there’s a strum of guitar, and Bare’s voice enters, singing with mock sincerity, “I wrote this song for my girl, Pearl. It’s all about her, it’s all about her, it’s all about Pearl. She’s my whole world, but nothing’s ever enough for Pearl!”
Even if it’s an obnoxious loser’s attempt at a last laugh, it’s still funny, and it’s the perfect ending to wholly remarkable albuma bitter, half-assed joke in which a guy says he can’t live without a woman even as he admits he can never please her. It’s just the sort of unsettling, raw-boned humor that runs throughout Bare Jr.’s Boo-Tay. A raging slab of rock ’n’ roll, it doesn’t just make you move; despite itself, it makes you think.
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Not the first time Mario Lopez has been snubbed (see Kapowski, Kelly).