Scumbag in the Dark

"This album," the booklet inside Gary Allan's current Alright Guyreads, "is dedicated to Willie, Waylon, Johnny, George, Buck & Merle," which is a way of saying not "Garth, Tim, Kix, Ronnie, Kenny & Toby." Allan, originally from and still very much resident in California, where he grew up surfing and banging his head to X and Agent Orange, has taken shape after three slantingly successful albums as one of country's behatted advocates, the kind who have drawn creative lines in the sand ever since Dwight Yoakam did some serious damage to Nashville's lofty sense of itself as the Supreme Court, if not the Paris, of country music. The genre's come a long way since Willie, Waylon, Johnny, George, Buck & Merle, Allan rushes to say, and it adds up to one sorry story—incessant marketing that whispers, as Joan Didion once italicized the subliminal drift of the early-'90s Democratic Party, "our kind, your kind, good parents, country club, chlorine in the swimming pool." Nonetheless, the Allan school of country advocacy risks boring people who love country music. Their sensible counter-argument runs: "You know that Tim McGraw song about trying to impress a girl, but you've just slopped barbecue on your white T-shirt? That's awesome."

Allan, though, refuses to bore anyone. Spinning down and out of the Orbisonesque elegance of "Smoke Rings in the Dark," the 1999 single (and album) that put his name in glowing if not blinding lights, Allan has exchanged that West Coast aural myth, where American rootsiness goes all suave and pretty, for another favorite L.A. sonic tradition, where country music exists as a bar soundtrack comprised of gritty songwriting of virtually punk strength. The music, produced by Tony Brown and Mark Wright with no attempted Nashville cover-up of the Yoakam Decision, puts Allan's strong and flexible but also affectingly shaky and always uncompromised tenor in charge of the songs, as Chad Cromwell's drums drive hard. In between, you've got your electric guitars, unkeyboardy keyboards, steels, basses, mandolins. And fiddles in a brilliant and unclichéd mix, by Greg Dorman, that is both lucid and clattery.

The songs sail. "Man to Man" finds one of Allan's narrators suggesting to another, hotly indignant guy that sometimes cheated-on lovers aren't so pure to start with; it's a total country ride, where the swaying rhythm, plainspoken words, and subtle back-of-the-throat vocal inflections all pungently combine. The confessional guy in "The Devil's Candy," who says he "once lost an angel when a bad girl was handy," feels torn; he wants to "do what's right," he thinks, but fears "I'll never understand me." So he gets lost in music, joining "good ole boys and girls of the night," saved by the sounds of hot fiddling, numbed by frightening freeway noise. There are intimate ballads with major badass flourishes ("What I'd Say") or sub-sub-Sinatra nightclub fantasies ("Adobe Walls"), interpersonal queries that wind up deciding, hell, let's just dance ("What's on My Mind"), world-historical queries that petition the divine ("What Would Willie Do").

And then there's a two-song sequence that elevates Alright Guyinto near genius, a contrast that renders the album perhaps the most sophisticated Nashville collection ever about being a bonehead. First comes the title song, a melodic stomp that opens with Allan's narrator caught looking at naked pictures of Madonna, an activity that causes his girlfriend to call him a "scumbag." Witty portrayals of dope smoking and incarceration follow, all bolstered by dogged choruses of "I think I'm an alright guy, I think I'm an alright guy." Then comes "The One," a standardly beautiful Nashville love groove in which Allan's freshly manicured narrator swears to a woman that he'll "fill those canyons in your soul/Like a river leads you home." He's making this pitch in front of a swimming pool. But look closely: There's some green algae around the edges.

 
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