Brent Amaker and the Rodeo is a country band that’s adopted the Neil Hamburger approach of exaggerating a character to damned-silly proportions. But instead of bringing wrath, scotch, and a tuxedo, The Rodeo bring 12 tracks of certifiably hard-drivin’ country on their latest, Please Stand By, shot through with a taste for the sinister and theatrical. As Amaker said in an interview with OC Music, “We play Western music, and we do whatever the fuck we want.”
The band does all its traveling in full-cowboy attire, quite a departure from its hometown of Seattle’s lumpy sweaters. No doubt, this is a slick band. In fact, if you discount the cowboy hats on the awesomely cultish cover of Please Stand By, there’s not a lot to suggest that they’re a country band at all. It features the trophy of an 8-point buck hung on a bleak concrete wall, the band surrounded by ultra-spare contemporary furniture with Amaker himself holding an unconscious woman in a cocktail dress. The Quentin Tarantino comparison the band makes on its Myspace is appropriate: this is a parallel-universe band like Inglourious Basterds was a parallel-universe movie.
The album is theatrically structured, with an intro featuring Brent Amaker’s voice, somewhere between Sam Elliott and a used car salesman, rising out of a snaking spaghetti-western guitar line larger than life. There’s not a trace of high and lonesome in Amaker’s heavy bass growl, and the twangy lead guitar meanderings could only come from a dude nicknamed ‘Tiny Dancer.’
There are songs about everything one expects — travelin’, pickin’, drinkin’, et al. — so dutifully arranged that the band could rightly be accused of favoring style over substance. Indeed, there’s a bit of a performance art feel to the album. “Hammer Hits The Nail” features The Rodeo at their best, with Brent and the band alternating forecasts of doom; “I’m gonna bring the hammer down,” “He’s the one who swings the hammer now.”
The best country music expresses profound things in the commonest of terms, and these postmodern cowpokes do a decent job approaching that. “In the end/ We’re all doomed/ Even if you’re living/ On the moon” on “Doomed” comes off as just careless rather than an endearingly glib take on mortality. But based on the hooting and hollering from the band during the interlude before the last chorus, that’s not their main concern. If country music really is for the everyman, why shouldn’t songs about the apocalypse two-step in on nursery-rhyme couplets?