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Slobberbone passed through town so often that you would be forgiven for thinking that they were a local band. Over the course of a decade, the Denton, Texas-based outfit built a devoted Twin Cities following for their swaggering, meat-and-potatoes, country rock.
Lead singer Brent Best recalls a gig at the 400 Bar some years back when they opened up for the Bottle Rockets: "By then our crowd was pretty good in Minneapolis," Best says in a phone interview last month. "So we had this great set and we get done, and the crowd is going nuts and wanting an encore. You don't do an encore if you're the opening band. Finally, someone halfway down the stairs is like, 'You better do it.' So we went back on and we did "Working Man" by Rush. It was like some big, bloated 10-minute version of it. We had maybe futzed around with it before, drunkenly, but never really to be played seriously. And somehow we just nailed it all the way through. Extended solos, everything. We get off stage and we're walking downstairs. I'm thinking, 'Oh man, [Bottle Rockets' frontman Brian] Henneman's gonna be pissed.' We walk downstairs and Henneman's standing there with these huge eyes going, 'Oh my God!'"
It's been more than a year now since Slobberbone officially called it quits. Bass player Brian Lane headed south to Florida for married life and a spot in a bluegrass band, but the remaining members of the band—Best, drummer Tony Harper, and guitarist Jess Barr—have resurfaced as the Drams.
Which begs the question: Why change the name at all? "Slobberbone had actually been on break for about a year and a half before we officially called it quits," says Best. "At some point we decided a long time ago that Slobberbone was the four of us and if anyone ever left or whatever we wouldn't try to replace them."
Despite the presence of three-quarters of the original band, those looking for Slobberbone II will be sorely disappointed. The Drams, as evidenced by their debut album, Jubilee Dive, are a very different beast. There's not a banjo or mandolin anywhere to be found. Instead Chad Stockslager's sprightly piano melodies are prominently featured. Best's full-throttle, messianic vocals have been slotted back a gear; he no longer sounds as if he might spit out a lung at the close of each song.
At times it seems like the singer is trying just a little too hard to leave his cowpunk past behind. Some of these songs come across like grad-school poetry exercises. "Pickup game pundits play perilous pursuits," he sings on the opening track, as if he's just discovered the concept of alliteration. He also displays a heretofore unknown tendency to lapse into motivational hokum. "Don't pave your path after anyone," he repeatedly lectures on "Hummalong," inspiring unwelcome flashbacks of Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society.
But more often the songs on Jubilee Dive achieve a sprawling, wide-eyed splendor. "You Won't Forget" opens with a simple acoustic guitar melody. Best's vocals are then complemented by charming, call-and-response harmonies from newcomers Stockslager and Keith Killoren. Halfway through it plunges to a halt, some ethereal strings providing the sole evidence that the song isn't quite over. Then it comes crashing back with an infectious organ melody and a rousing chorus of horns. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, it's audacious and sublime. "September's High" sounds at first like an outtake from a Slobberbone session, with Best's world-weary vocals dominating the proceedings. But it builds into a psychedelic bridge that suggests he's spent some time in the last two years listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The final track, "Wonderous Life," is propped up by a mournful piano line, with drums and guitars gradually layered. Every other line of Best's vocals is cut with distortion. He rhymes drunk, spunk, junk, and funk, and repeatedly declares, "It's a wondrous life/I've got no misgivings." It may sound schmaltzy, but the result is transcendent.
Putting out an album wasn't in Best's plans when he first assembled the Drams. Rather, he was slated to play a solo gig last year at South by Southwest and found himself sandwiched between two "loud bands." Rather than attempt to win over the crowd with his acoustic strumming, Best pulled together a five-piece outfit. "It was actually really fun and natural," he says. "It's kind of weird to think that our first show ever was at South by Southwest." Best had been playing occasional acoustic gigs and sporadically working on a solo record. But that plan got shelved, or at least put on hold. "Whenever I sit down and plan to do something and try to stick to that, it rarely works out great," he notes.
Slobberbone's relentless road work over the years earned them a loyal following. Not all of these fans have taken kindly to Best and company's new project. "I get e-mails from people I don't know just lambasting me because they heard someone say that we'll never play a Slobberbone song," he laughs. "Well, I might have said that, but relax. We haven't really up until this point, but now that the album's done and we're touring and stuff, there's a possibility we might. It's not going to be something we strive to incorporate every night. But we play a lot of covers, so why not cover my own band if I want to?"