The Band Perry and the Triumph of Nashville's "Cauc-Pop"
Every couple weeks, the Voice takes a hard listen to the music in which millions of Americans soak.
The Band Perry, "Done" Current Billboard Country Chart Position: 15
Yes, "cauc-pop." What else to call the Nashville radio hits that, since Dolly went disco, have drawn so fully on the deepest tradition of all: gathering any and all popular musics into one big ol' slightly neutered American sound and then selling it to white folks as theirs. It's much too late in the history of appropriation to worry about this now, of course. Instead, it's much more fruitful -- and amusing -- to savor the best of today's country radio as the trad-yet-radical mix-up that it is.
Tune in for an hour, and you'll hear echoes of every type of music white America has ever loved: "Margaritaville" and "Sweet Home Alabama," pre-Dre breakbeats and rapping, hair-metal guitar solos and the corroded chords of alt-rock, honky tonk piano and chiming Beatle-style arpeggios, stiff Christian rock and the toked-up shuffle of the Doobie Brothers, power ballads that with the pedal-steel mixed out might have been on the Top Gun soundtrack and with a house thump mixed in could achieve clubland immortality. There's even, sometimes, a song your grandpa would identify as sounding like country.
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The Band Perry stands as the current exemplars of this cauc-pop.
They're by no means the first, nor the most wide-ranging. (Godawful Rascal Flatts covers more pop genres, but they cover them the way their beloved JC Penney's covers so many departments, by which I mean stiffly and without specialization.) But right now there's nobody else in Nashville mashing together so many non-country sounds into such great country music, much of it likely to shock the ears of listeners only familiar with the group's winsome, self-penned first hit, "If I Die Young" -- an earnest folky cross-over moper that could almost pass for a great R.E.M. cover.
Their current single, "Done," could not.
"If I Die Young" sounded like one thing, but "Done" -- and the other strongest tracks on Pioneer, The Band Perry's second full length -- sounds like all things at once. The kickdrum and power chords are a glitter-glam strut. (On later verses, the guitars are augmented by plucked banjos and what sounds like Peter Frampton-style mouth harping.) The chorus, about mama's advice not working out with today's asshole men, seems like a Miranda Lambert lift until it trapdoors into Poison territory, all candied rock and theatrical badassey.
Then singer Kimberly Perry offers a dismissive, irresistible Opryland "la-di-da" before she and her two background brothers pay tribute to modern Nashville's favorite of all family musical acts: No, not the Carter Family. The delicious sympocatated unison descent that brings the Perry siblings to the title -- "All I wanna be is done"-- is pure Jackson Five.
After the second chorus the song breaks open honest-to-God rock momentum, something you never here in new radio music anymore. For twenty thrilling seconds, "Done" is cauc-pop and cock-rock both, all hair-band riffs and squalling solos -- first guitar, then fiddle, both more Poison than Ralph Mooney. Meanwhile, Kimberly Perry exults in all the arena-engineered awesomeness with wordless, near-orgasmic whoa!s.
I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it all sounds like what Rock of Ages was going for: a musical theater gloss on Def Leppard, a cleaned-up reclamation of older pop masculinity for audiences that Warrant's "Cherry Pie" left out.
Like Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and other cauc-poppers who self-identify as country, The Band Perry here are produced by Dan Huff, crafter of gauche, boring hits. It's little suprise that, in his L.A. days, he played in Christian rock band White Heart, as his work often has all the noise of '80s rock but none of the boners.
But in Kimberly Perry he's producing a spitfire who demands to co-write her material and whose voice -- boyish and ragged but then clear as spring-water -- might be one of the best in pop. Nashville's spitfires are allowed to be impolite, so "Done" is the rare Huff production that actually feels like the rock he so often apes. Chaste Keith Urban sings, wanly, "I want to kiss a girl," any girl, while Kimberly Perry sounds like she's going to tear an asshole out of this one particular boy -- and get off doing it.
The rest of The Band Perry's excellent Pioneer LP charts similar territory. With her voice, the horizon-sized choruses, and Huff's cauc-pop theatricality it all sounds like the cast recording to some musical about a southern glam band. There's folk songs and ballads, of course, but what sticks here are the genre-destroying flamethrowers. "Forever Mine Nevermind" suggests Hanson, Queen, and Taylor Swift, while giving Kimberly Perry the chance to shout and scrape up -- thrillingly-- into her higher registers. (She sometimes sounds like a young Michael Jackson.)
My favorite, "Night Gone Wasted," written by the Perrys with Brad Paisley, is the only one to sound anything like what purists argue country should sound like -- but really, its live bar-band swagger is more piss-take T. Rex than it is Waylon. The lyric is Nashville's usual party-hearty stuff, but the singing, especially as she hollers that last breathy "Tonight!" is for the ages.
Bonus points for the absurd Beatles-comedy voice one of the boy Perrys affects to echo the phrase "blow off some steam" at 1:35. One hallmark of cauc-pop: It's often charmingly dorky.
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