There’s a part of me that will always think Jason Ringenberg’s voice just sounds odd without Warner Hodges’s fiery guitar licks backing him up. As the two most visible members of Jason & the Scorchers, they seemed to goose each other to greater heights in their quest for the ideal wild-eyed country-metal-thrash sound. Now five albums into his solo career, Ringenberg has turned down the volume but turned up the political views.
“Are we an empire all alone/Throwing the world a rubber bone,” he asks on the opening spoken word piece “American Question.” “Or can we export dignity/Respecting those who disagree?” Ringenberg’s heart is in the right place, but the execution on this one and the album’s other bookend, “American Reprieve,” is lacking. They sound like poetry slam night at the Hep Cat Club. As a matter of fact, for all the outrage produced by George W. and his Iraq war, there haven’t been any great protest songs, at least to these ears. Most of the attempts have come off as ham-handed or thrown together. Many artists merely resort to borrowing protest anthems from other eras. But I digress.
Fortunately, Empire Builders gets better. The somewhat clunky, but more Scorchers-like “Rebel Flag in Germany” is about spotting the Confederate symbol in an unlikely place and feeling ashamed. “Robert E. Lee would not have wished to see his flag in central Germany … Hell I don’t even want to see that flag in Tennessee,” Ringenberg sings.
Ringenberg also covers Merle Haggard to good effect (“Rainbow Stew”) and genuflects at the altar of ageless rocker Link Wray (“Link Wray”). “You’ll never see him on the MTV/But he rocks more than any band you’ll see,” he sings. He offers stories about a Tuskegee airman in World War II (“Tuskegee Pride”) and a Nez Perce Indian chief (“Chief Joseph’s Last Dream”). But the best offerings here are a couple of ballads. “She Hung the Moon (Until It Died)” features weepy pedal steel. And “Half the Man” is a nice song about trying to measure up to his Dad.
Regrettably, the album also includes “New-Fashioned Imperialist,” the lyrics of which read angry on the page. But Ringenberg just sounds tired and bored. And the parade oompah band arrangement doesn’t do him any favors.
Ringenberg has found a new crew of solid collaborators, including George Bradfute, who may be a more versatile guitarist than Warner Hodges. Still, what Empire Builders most needs is for Warner to whip that guitar around his neck and kick things into gear.