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For the better part of the last decade, a band of Alabama garage rockers under the moniker the Dexateens has been bringing their self-styled “skillet rock” to an audience of music lovers that hunger for something that feeds the spirit, sets the soul ablaze, and gives the body the inspiration to jump up and dance, to witness, to testify, and sing along.
Though the line-up has changed over the years, the partnership between John Smith and Elliott McPherson is the constant that has sustained the band since its inception in Tuscaloosa in 1998 when the duo were drifting university students. Smith and McPherson not only share songwriting responsibilities, but also trade competitive guitar licks while simultaneously singing in a harmony that seems at once infused with goodwill and an almost gospel-style, good-old-boy friendship. The Dexateens first rose above their university-town, local-hero status with their electrifying second studio album Red Dust Rising, produced by cowboy punk proselyte Tim Kerr, which captured the attention of Drive-By Truckers frontman/showman Patterson Hood, who helped produce the band’s equally successful follow-up Hardwire Healing. Both Red Dust Rising and Hardwire Healing feature a sly mixture of 70’s-style Southern Stadium Rock musicality with lyrics that strike at the visceral as well as the metaphysical.
The stomping revelation “Take Me to the Speedway” asks the listener to imagine not only being dragged through “red clay” but also to imagine the uplifting and transcendental power this activity might have to “wash away the bad times.” The metaphysical conceit of being on the moon, as a metaphor for being lonesome, far from home, ungrounded, and lost in space, grabbed the attention of Paste Magazine’s New Music Sampler when they anthologized the Hardwire Healing single “Neil Armstrong,” a song that highlights the band’s ability to evoke a sort of lyrical, majestic melancholy without hindering their earthy roots-rock ethos. Thus, one might very well compare the Dexateens to Crazy Horse, or even the Band, for their ability to electrify folk music (and the listener), simultaneously administering layers of twang and crunch that illustrate the proliferate talent and multifaceted nature of the band.
Aided by founding bass player Matt Patton and newcomers Brian Gosdin and Lee Bains, III, the Dexateens take another step in their musical journey toward rock and roll posterity with Singlewide, an album that signals the band’s rise upward – out of the garage and onto the porch. As the title indicates, Singlewide is a decidedly low-fi turn for the band, a simplification of sorts to the band’s essence; recorded at Beech House Studios in Nashville, Tennessee with the help of producer Mark Nevers (Lampchop, Silver Jews, Charlie Louvin), the album’s first track “Down Low” announces the forfeiture of some of the previous album’s Skynyrd pomp in favor of good old fashioned songcraft. For those who enjoy the poetic conceit construction of “Neil Armstrong,” there is similar delight to be found in “Caption,” a rather Donovanesque ditty that investigates the limits of words and images in depicting “the movie of your life,” as well as the relationship of commerce and art: “You can save your money but you got to spend the years.”
The band is equally skilled in writing story songs in the best of the Southern oral tradition, gorgeously exemplified in “Charlemagne” and “The Ballad of Souls Departed.” The latter reminds us of the band’s considerable musical range as it moves from discordant banjos to tastefully blazing guitars. The entire album possesses a sense of spiritual questioning, if not actual questing. In McPherson’s vocals, especially, there is an ever-present hound dog whine of tragic resignation. Certainly, there is an added quiver of disappointment in “Granddaddy’s Mouth,” but also hope for a future yet to be prophesied in “Spark” and “Hang On.” Overall, Singlewide feels like sunrise after a long, dark night rockin’ in the garage, the bar, the bowery, or the stadium. The title track “Singlewide” illustrates that all of us may be stuck in the trailer park, but some of us are looking up at the stars. The final track on the album “Can You Whoop It?” is an assertion posing as a question. With the assistance of Dave Berman of the Silver Jews, who provides the robotic “yes” to the backwoods version of the question Can You Dig It?, the song is sonic ego affirmation for all us small-town, good old boys, who feel condescended to and emotionally outgunned. There is not a little lo-fi irony at work here with the lyrical persona who claims to like both “Ronnie Dio” and “Vaseline,” but, all that aside, the band’s fierce guitars return fire for those of us who feel like we have just had our porch lights shot out. Rest assured, there are answers to the dim, hazy questions raised by Singlewide. And the Dexateens are just the band to sing the sun awake.