Freak Out!


You know that Big & Rich are punk rockers because they bitch about airplay so much.

Just kidding. I can’t think of much that’s less punk rock. Maybe Mozart and Snow White, but not too many others. Big & Rich are just too genial. They never engage in warfare, they merely lament it. Their new album, Comin’ to Your City, starts with Big Kenny and John Rich goofing around in a mock argument over whether to say “Someone has to be unafraid” or “Someone’s got to be unafraid,” after which “someone” morphs to “somebody” so that “Somebody’s got to be unafraid” (the meter now a march beat) “TO LEAD THE FREAK PARADE!” And it’s as if anyone could join their freak parade, so you have a band of outcasts, albeit with no real sense of being cast out, no foil or enemy or normie to define themselves against other than an occasionally mentioned but never resented radio man, rich man, or embezzler. They’ve just got a funny, rollicking, and (sotto voce) painful life to celebrate is all, everybody welcome, drinks at half-price.

Of course, what Big & Rich are doing is impossible. I don’t mean the fact that they’re a successful mainstream country duo who make a big thing of incorporating hard rock and hard funk and hip-hop into their music. Some other country acts do the same thing—at least the rock and funk bit—though with less hullabaloo. What’s impossible is that there’s absolutely no anger in Big & Rich’s rocking. And what’s bizarre is that in a genre where sales correlate with resentment (might as well just change the genre title from “country” to “resentment”) they seem not to know bitterness. On their previous album, Kenny (or is it Rich?) sang that he once tried to kill a man, but you don’t feel the kill in the song, which isn’t about hurting someone but about being saved from your own evil.

Big & Rich probably find it invigorating and funny that their sales run so far ahead of airplay. (And actually, their mentioning airplay—first song on the first album—was a canny marketing tool, like the Mothers of Invention trumpeting themselves as having no commercial potential.) In general B&R think that the world is fundamentally right in all its weird variety, even if they themselves have days of being broken down and hurt. This fundamental faith in the world of weirdness is how they get away with doing everything by gesture. I mean, they as good as declare that country isn’t real country music unless it includes black people. Of course, this also works as a justification for all those uncompromising funk-rock songs in their repertoire (one of which they rode onto country radio and CMT), with sawing fiddles included to signify “country” but being no less a funky part of the funk. And to further mix things up, one of the funk tracks on Comin’ to Your City declares itself Latino-related due entirely to lyrics about jalapeños and tequila and not to its sound, which remains basic funk. (Not to say that Latino-Caribbean isn’t in the ancestry of funk, just as Latino-polka is in the ancestry of country two-step, but “Latino” isn’t woven into funk or country’s signifiers, even if it should be.)

Last year’s debut album was a miracle, the Sgt. Pepper’s of country, hard funk that was a bit goofy, and goofball hoedowns that were funky nonetheless, with a pang of sadness in everything due to nonstop two-part harmonies that owed as much to Metallica as to the Louvin Brothers. And the truly sad songs—sexual abuse, suicidal longings, Tonto and Lone Ranger having to stalk and kill each other—had beauty nonetheless, due to those same fetching harmonies. The new album falls to being merely good, not just because the guys are mixing the same funny signifiers into the same funny milkshake and it’s not as fun this time, but because they no longer are taking close two-part harmonies where nobody else had taken harmonies before, or piling breakdowns upon breakdowns, codas upon codas, and vamps upon vamps. (The stuff on the previous album that had run closest to a hip-hop sensibility hadn’t been the raps but the coda-dance-breakdown pileup.) And they don’t combine the zing and the goof and the ache so deliciously this time. The funk songs here ker-funk-a-funk-a-funk at least as well as last album’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” but on “Save a Horse” they’d horsed around better. (And “Save a Horse” was maybe my fifth favorite on Horse of a Different Color.)

But honestly I don’t want them to succeed again on the terms of their first album. In the Lone Ranger–Tonto song they’d sung, “Only forgiveness will finally end this,” which is wise in itself but isn’t sufficient to end anything if you’re not willing to say what “this” is, what the fighting feels like, and what the anger is about. Though black people may be welcome in your parade, most won’t show up, due to mistrust and due to large numbers being marginalized and branded criminal, even by others in the parade. You’re in a genre where a couple of self-styled “outlaws” have recommended stringing up gangstas and whose best singer found herself and her band blackballed for a one-sentence denunciation of the Iraq war. Not that I demand that Big & Rich do anything about such things. (What have I done about them?) But I’d feel more for the freak parade if it didn’t sidestep the impossibilities. In other words, I want it more punk. (A pretty good album nonetheless.)