When the Backsliders released their debut record, Throwing Rocks at the Moon , in 1997, it was widely and rightly hailed as better than any country act Nashville’s produced in the last couple years. With the band’s rocking, Gram Parsons-inspired approach and lead singer Chip Robinson’s weather-beaten voice, the Backsliders produced one forever more good record. However, inter-band tensions between Robinson and co-leader Steve Howell led to the band calling it quits as a collective early last year. Essentially, Robinson wanted to be a little bit country and Howell wanted to be a little bit rock & roll.
Thus, the “band’s” sophomore effort, Southern Lines , is largely a Robinson solo project, but a still pretty damn good record. A few tracks were recorded with the rest of the erstwhile Backsliders and few with a hodge-podge of musicians, Robinson nevertheless pulls off an excellent country-influenced roots rock album.
Ironically enough, though, the best track on the record, “Never Be Your Darlin’,” came from Howell’s pen, not Robinson’s. Mixing the right amount of country twang with rock shuffle and a “what the hell” sense of resignation, the tune knocks the socks off most of what comes out of both Nashville and the “alt-country” boom. Have no illusions, Robinson’s a damn good songwriter in his own right, too, and proves it with the weary “It Rained on Monday” and the ironically lovely “Psychic Friend.” Resembling a hill country Steve Earle both vocally and lyrically, Robinson’s tales of small-town love and the like have remarkable sharpness of focus.
The record’s true strengths lie in the rollicking “Angelita.” With his heavy North Carolina twang and a dash of bitterness in his voice, Robinson roars through the tune’s desperate tale before settling into resigned defeat, with the old band rocking right along with him. In fact, Southern Lines is strongest when the Backsliders as we knew them are together, like on the barroom shuffle of “The Lonely One.” While Chip Robinson has given no indication the band will reform or that he’ll give up performing, perhaps it’d be best for all concerned if the band could put aside their differences in the interest of the excellent music found on Southern Lines . If not, this album ain’t a bad way for the Backsliders to go out.
Mammoth Records, The Broadstreet Building, 101 B Street, Carrboro, NC 27510-1834; http://www.mammoth.com