Judging by the plush sounds coming out of Nashville, and the highly-produced crooning of the East Coast folk crowd, you get the feeling that none of these people ever has a bad hair day. Not so, with Aaron Coffin’s debut solo, Lowbagger Home Opera. Recorded and mastered at Barking Spider Studio in Hamilton, this disc is homegrown and willfully unpretentious. “Every human being is musical in some way,” says Kirby Erickson, owner of Barking Spider. “Rhythm and melody comes to us naturally. We play music to play music. Being a virtuoso is not the goal.” Lowbagger Home Opera quietly asserts the vastly underestimated value of playing your own music among friends. Recorded on digital eight-track, most of it is live and with only a few overdubs, it’s nothing fancy. Just straightforward Missoula folk and blues tunes, suitable for Sunday morning, pancakes and coffee.
Coffin, originally a cellist, played with classical ensembles around Seattle before moving to Missoula 10 years ago. He has played guitar and mandolin for years with local, lefty heroes, the Velcro Sheep. Their international pub sound, a raucous mix of Celtic, folk, blues, Greek and east European influences, plus earthy politics, has earned them a hearty, small-town following. Two of the sheep, Dan Funsch (accordion) and Sonia Chessin (flute) also play on Coffin’s new disc.
Coffin’s guitar and cello playing is delightfully buoyant. A simple yet careful attention to detail is evident throughout the recording. His jazzy instrumentals and quietly insightful blues tunes and ballads create a charming textural program that ripens with each listening. There are unassuming gems among the compositions, including “Casa Isabella,” a gentle duet for guitar and cello, and “Runaway Train,” a ballad that describes the juggernaut of environmental degradation.
The recording’s greatest weakness is in Coffin’s vocals. Though the characters in the vocals are nice, Coffin’s voice is edged with an undeveloped sound that strains and cracks, never quite matching the natural strength of the music and lyrics. Unfortunately, it requires patience to get beyond this plainly apparent Achilles’ heel. Nevertheless, the disc rewards repeated playing, unfolding subtle layers for the willing listener.
Coffin is a prolific music writer. When he began recording Lowbagger, he simply wanted to get much of his latest material on tape so he could move on. Kirby Erickson, who also recorded the Velcro Sheep, says after hearing the compositions he encouraged a broadening of the project. Musicians Don Maus (bass) and Terri Brown, (djembe and conga) both visited the studio in passing. They liked what they heard and decided to join in the effort. Conga player Michael Fiedler also sits in on one of the tracks. “There’s a certain honesty in Aaron’s music,” Erickson says, “What you hear on the recording is how Aaron sounds live. He has real talent.”T. James Graham, T. James Graham,
Something I always found irresistible about Mike and Rick is how they always managed to have it both ways. It’s no mean feat to send up the pomposity of arena-sized cock rock and still write purple-prosed anthems that kick righteous ass, albeit not without a hefty dose of irony, but the much-missed trio always managed to have their cake and eat it, too. They were the rock equivalent of a subtropical climate exchange zone: hothouse bombast tempered by an easy cool and a bone-dry sense of humor. And they pulled off their lowbrow odes to shitty beer, sex and the county fair with one-of-a-kind panache. It didn’t matter if they were parodying the very music they were playing or not. Mike and Rick flat-out ruled.
Frankly, I’m a little surprised that guitarist T. James (that’s “Tim” to most of us) Graham’s solo album isn’t one of three solo albums, KISS-style, with bassist Joe Mudd and drummer Dave Knadler also given carte blanche to explore the private moods we never got to experience in Mike and Rick. That would have been right in keeping with the humor. A Dave Knadler solo album—dare to dream, eh?
Oddly lonesome though it looks on the rack, Graham’s album is still a very well-spent $7. Nothing on here should come as any great to surprise to you diehard Mike and Rick fans, especially considering you’ve probably heard Graham bust out a couple of these budget ballads during one of his many campfire moments with just an acoustic guitar, a warm can of Pabst and a throng of people pressed around him hollering the choruses. “Allison’s Men” is instant-country hilarity and contains this typically memorable quatrain: “Scrounging up some change to buy herself some rubbers/Her nights are full of faceless lovers.” With its lazy guitar solo and deliberate rock-ballad tempo, “Pirate on the Ocean” could be Graham’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” except that the echo-laden vocals and oddly circular lyrics make it sound more like an outtake from some never-released “codeine” album by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
Genre thrills abound on this worthy addition to your Missoula archives, 10 songs clocking in at just over half an hour, with forays into the tough and tender and all points between. Get a whiff of the ultra-stony chugga-chugga-riffage on “Smurf Village” (I think it’s called “Smurf Village, anyway—the track listing is all screwed up). But the real high point is “PBR ASAP,” which essentially distills the album into its 12-ounce essence: “1844 was a mighty fine year/For brewing that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer...Hey man, don’t let your taste buds lie/PBR, man, that shit is super-fly.” The melody is a rowdy boys’ sing-along with chiding female vocals (“The shit is soylent green!”) breaking in here and there to give the song a funny “Tell Me More” kind of keg-party battle of the sexes feel.
The album is available at Ear Candy, but if you want to buy it direct from Tim himself, try writing him first.