Jason Boland & The Stragglers – ‘Squelch’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

[rating=7.00]

Jason Boland and his band the Stragglers are that rare act who succeed in making fans out of both country music traditionalists and those more inclined to the modern, more pop-inflected styles of the genre. The band’s eighth studio album, the oddly titled Squelch, finds these Oklahomans going in all sorts of musical directions and, thankfully, none of them sound like what the title suggests.
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Squelch finds Boland working with all the tools in his kit, using the music as a way to show us the many places he can take his drawling baritone and also putting his crossover appeal on full display. Lyrically, he is dishing out commentary that is, um, interesting. Album opener “Break 19” gets things moving as a proper trucking song that brings to mind the likes of Waylon Jennings and Dale Watson. Boland then takes us inside the dancehall with the fiddle-tinged “The First To Know”, a song that stands in contrast to the straightforward rocking of “I Guess It’s Alright To Be An Asshole”. Jason Boland the storyteller steps out in “Lose Early”, a song that pays homage to Texas blues with bizaare lyrical imagery of fighting through ominous times.

Given that much of Boland’s fanbase are Red State inhabitants, it’s almost suprising to hear his pointed critique of modern Idiocracy in “Fat and Merry”. Backed by the upbeat groove of a tambourine and fiddle, Boland sings, “We’ll raise a couple clones with internal microphones”, projecting a sense of intellect that stretches well beyond the roadhouse. He stays in this vein with “Christmas In Hunstville”, contrasting the bleakness of wrongful incarceration and the death penalty with the silly novelty of the holidays. Here we find a country singer conflicted about the world he sees around him, which is clearly a core theme of Squelch. Even the final song on the album, “Fuck Fight and Rodeo” seems at first listen like a tune aimed to please a bunch of drunk Texas frat boys, but behind the suggestive song title is a rant on hypocrisy as Boland sings, “the higher cost of living in this land of the free”, before railing off the chorus, “Nothing’s ever gonna change with their kind running the show.” Clearly, like many Americans, Jason Boland is frustrated by the political shananigans bringing America down. Ironically, “Fuck Fight and Rodeo” is the best example on this album of a song you’d want to get blissfully, rip-roaring drunk to and kick up a little dust on the dancefloor.

If there is one downside to Boland’s angry musings on Squelch it’s that we can never really tell what team he’s on. At times his calling it like he sees it feels almost Trumpian, but he also seems more concerned with existensial questions than blunt, bold statements. On the one hand it’s refreshing to hear a singer-songwriter with roots in Red Dirt and Texas country music giving us songs that are about more than the typical cheatin’ and trucks fare that often plagues the genre. However, it’s hard to say if his observations are really groundbreaking, except that they are set to a twangy soundtrack of fiddles and steel guitars, which makes for a fun, interesting listen at the very least. Then again, maybe Boland doesn’t want us to think too much about what he’s saying. This is, after all, music you can drink and dance to. Squelch is ultimately a pleasing country record from an artist taking a good hard look at the world around him, and it leaves us curious as to where Jason Boland and the Stragglers will go from here.

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