I’ve been through this before. I’ve become enraptured with the energy, the charisma, the vulnerability, the direct connection with my own doings, the addictive amateurish spirit–which is where we ALL start–of young bands, namely, The Clash and The Replacements, then witnessed their growth as musicians and writers. Really, it’s a privilege, and maybe I perceive it differently because I’m an English teacher who’s always LOOKING for growth, but I have always found myself in conflict with other listeners who seem appalled with such bands simply because “they got good.” Read: they play better, they come to understand the studio, they mull over their lyrics a little, they–horrors!!!–discover more of the universal musical palate. At 52, I’m too experienced listening to music to scream “Sell Out!” just because a band GROWS.
Such is the case with Nashville’s Natural Child. In front, I must confess that I first encountered them in 2010 in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Scion Garagefest, simply because I didn’t know any of the bands on the first tier of shows and chose their venue randomly, and they charmed the shit out of me by presenting themselves as if they were dressed to go on a float trip, playing as if they’d just awakened and thought it was a good idea to rehearse, and communicating insights about white people and cougars and bad lays as if they were talking across the bar to you. In short, they were wonderfully unselfconscious, and just what I needed at the time. Vampire Weekend, sorry, is hard to take.
Since that show, I’ve been fanatically loyal, even harasssing them on Twitter for not being productive enough. Dating from the point of those tweets, they have been workaholics, but I am sure it’s coincidence. And they have proven worthy of my admiration: from their run of early singles (especially “Nobody Wants to party With Me,” “Crack Mountain,” and “Cougar”) through their first full-on albums–1971 and Hard in Heaven–they have hewed to the Doug Sahm Memorial Edict: “If it can’t be written on the back of a Taco Bell sack right after you done done it or thought it, what’s the point?” I am acutely aware of the arguments against this aesthetic, but I just don’t effin’ care, because it’s rock and roll.
Which brings us to the new Natural Child rekkid, Dancin’ with Wolves. For the first time, they sound clean. There’s a steel guitar weaving through the songs. No longer are they pursuing an odd, bass-led, distinctly East Nashvillean yet punky, weed-informed answer to Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers’ LAMF; they are laying back, nodding to New Riders of the Purple Sage (if i were 30, that’d be a deal-breaker), Sir Doug himself, even Big Brother minus Janis (ever heard Be a Brother?). They think they’re going to get more frequently laid because they are country hippies–well, if they really are, well, probably NOT–they lament our temporal state, they nostalgize about drinking and driving, they stand by their surprisingly hip city (if you can block out the image of Jack White), they throw a lifeline back to ol’ Jimmie Rodgers (though one has a right to question whether they could survive an interaction with, say, an actual North Dakotan rounder), they argue their country legitimacy. I believe that litany’s a pretty good argument for the album’s piquancy, though I fear some folks may consider it bland. If you need more persuasion, I’ll proffer this: if you simply browse over to Pitchfork’s review page, skate your eyes across the album cover images, and randomly read a few reviews, you will discern a painful trend toward bending over backwards to establish a plot of musical and–unfortunately, more urgent–existential uniqueness. The cumulative effect is comical. You’ve probably seen websites snarkily cataloguing “The Worst Album Covers of All-Time”? Pitchfork tops those websites monthly with images of new albums! Considered together, it’s just proof of how lost folks can be, and I like Natural Child because they are NOT lost. They know who they are, they aren’t ashamed of getting better, but…OK, here’s the rub…they have no aspirations of ascending to some hip mantle. Remember in Cool Hand Luke when Strother Martin’s gang boss, upon questioning Paul Newman’s Luke, can’t believe “Lucas War Hero” was discharged as a mere private? I love that moment in the movie, I’ve spent a lot of my professional life trying to apply its implications, and I’ve no doubt that Natural Child subscribe to the same day-by-day approach. Thus, they remain…my heroes.
I wish the lyrics had a few more surprises. I wish there were some dirty guitar. I wish the album were a shade funnier. But the boys have settled into an approach that makes them happy, and that’s contagious. Their lack of ambition is inspiring, considering the milieu they find themselves in, and, if their writing can grow as many moves as their musicianship has–something that, unfortunately, didn’t happen for the Replacements–maybe, someday, someway, they might get a notice in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. I am confident they are the best band in America with the least notices and, if one considers Dancin’ With Wolves their Hootenanny or Give ’em Enough Rope (I want to be sure you understand that I understand they are operating on a far more casual level than those forerunners, which is the seductive element for me), their best moments lie ahead.