photo by Shannon Claire
by Samuel Segrist
On a short enough timeline, one of two things happens to punks: They either die young or they get old. If a punk doesn't go the Sid Vicious route, the allure of hyper-kinetic, bouncy, balls-to-the-wall three-chord punk fades somewhat, and the musician usually broadens his palette, and slows things down a bit. The strikes and gutterballs of life result in a larger reservoir of experience from which to draw lyrical inspiration. Experience is a cruel teacher: It gives the exam first and the lesson after.
Songs, the debut EP by Low Horse, is the sound of five guys learning a cruel lesson about youthful ambition and the realities of aging. All five members of the band have been playing music in various groups for over a decade. Low Horse is a Lincoln-based superband made up of Craig Reier (Fatty & The Twins, Good with Guns), Nick Tarlowski (JV Allstars, Good with Guns), Ian Francis (The Machete Archive), Anthony Slattery (Gracious Jones) and Frank Holm (The Guapotones). There is a serious amount of experience among these five gentlemen, but the sound of them combining forces is not what you would expect. It's more Wilco than Wizo, more Johnny Cash than Johnny Rotten, more Tom Waits than Tommy Tutone.
Their music has a more somber and mournful Midwestern tone to it than any of the members' previous groups that I'm familiar with. Indie critics have a tendency to call this type of stuff Americana, but too often that means the lyrics are about the Dust Bowl, robbing banks Dillinger-style, or something "real" like that. This is not the case with Reier's lyrics. His words sparsely punctuate the moody and smoldering vibe of the songs, and the emotions he conveys are relatable. Almost all the lyrics are a form of direct address to the listener in which Reier is attempting to communicate some truth or insight.
For instance, on the first track, "The House," somber piano chords, deft tom fills and slide guitars establish an aching, melancholic yearning before Reier's understated vocals come in with a somewhat cryptic line:
"The house you built inside your head / And all the folks who live in it / Are getting restless."
Acoustic guitars, electric slide guitar, keys, drums and a breakdown with very spacious harmonies provide variety to the arrangements. Throughout the five selections, effective addition and subtraction of elements maximizes dynamics, though the group never strives to take it to 11. There are no cathartic climaxes of blistering sonic assault. Even when the band is rocking out, there is a collected calm.
"Rings," the first single from the EP, finds Reier as the world-weary traveler about to enter his 30s. He is attempting to impart sagely advice to young, ambitious, reckless youth. "Hey there, kid, I was a lot like you / I felt it all a little too much / Chasin' that rabbit a little too long."
"Sunglasses" finds Reier continuing his monologue with another youth, this one seeming to be that hipster who wears sunglasses indoors. At first, it seems to be a indictment: "Why don't you wear those sunglasses outside?" but then it seems to be a conversation with a depressed lover who needs to get out of town and see the world.
On "Too Late," the groove picks up a bit with a good driving shuffle and a chugging guitar riff sharing space with that signature slide sound. Reier is possibly speaking to himself about a bad day at work and the thoughts one after having spent too long in one place: "You slept too late to work today / You're so tired of your playground / You get used to it / You used to want it / You used to know."
The EP closes with "Felt Right" which starts with a rather uncharacteristic upbeat drum pattern, which is reminiscent of The Offspring's "Keep 'Em Separated." However, when the guitars do come in, the vibe changes considerably. Thematically and tempo-wise, it is more similar to "Too Late." It is definitely the centerpiece track of the five because of the surprising and satisfying switch into a half-time breakdown with stabs of piano and gorgeous, chimey guitars, drenched in a springy reverb over Francis's heavy drums. It also features one of the best lyrics that any musician playing to a less-than-enthusiastic crowd can relate to: "On with the show and the encore no one called for."
Based on the strength of these five songs, Low Horse can be expecting many calls for encores in the future. Songs is a solid debut release from Lincoln's "youngest" superband. To paraphrase a Linklater film: Low Horse may get older, but the feelings they write about stay the same age.
Samuel Segrist is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Reach him at email@example.com.