By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
WHOA, PARDNER. THIS alt-country thang is shore gettin' outta hand, innit? Ween just released a country album, for cryin' out loud, while C&W samples are turning up in everything from hip hop songs to the new Beck album. Let's just hope the recent twang influx doesn't obscure the integrity of Steeplejack's Paisley Park-recorded debut. Actually, Kitchen Radio isn't that twangy. And local songwriters Ben Connelly and Andy Sullivan, a couple of over-educated, wisecracking drinking buddies, are far from urban cowboys. Steeplejack itself is nothing more or less than a seasoned pop-rock band, souped up with a few "traditional" instruments (on which, if the lightnin' fiddle and banjo-pickin' on "Panning for Gold" is one of many indications, they've earned their chops).
Besides, if "country" hints at music with local color, Steeplejack's got that aplenty. But they're not limited to check-ins from the road near Albert Lea and Bismarck. Back home in Minneapolis, Sullivan bemoans the traffic jam up and down Lyndale Avenue, and evokes the familiar loneliness of walking through Whittier in the dead of winter night. In "5'9" & Rising," Connelly gleefully channels winter frustration into the escapist fantasy of a new Ice Age. (The band's Texas record label must get a kick out of that one.) After all, in this town, you risk spending the winter alone if you don't get into the November-to-May love cycle--hence Sullivan's "Panning for Gold" analogy. Later on, Connelly's title-track yarn of a man considering suicide is both creepy and compelling.
So, if the record suffers from anything, it's the absence of an epicenter to pull it all together. The Sullivan-Connelly songwriting duel contributes a schizo presence to the album, as does the contrast between Connelly's throaty barfly storytelling and Sullivan's earnest, near-feminine tenor. On the other hand, the pair's complementary skills come together in a versatile, backward and forward-looking band--one which piles on the hoedown velocity and the rock-band crunch, but mercifully, never at the same time. A fun, if somewhat random collection of impressions for us (not entirely) common people. (Simon Peter Groebner)
In stores Tuesday. Steeplejack performs at 7th Street Entry on Aug. 17; call 338-8388.