The initial reaction from critics to Bryan & the Haggards' debut disc Pretend It's The End of the World paralleled the first responses to labelmates Mostly Other People Do the Killing's opening salvo This is Our Moosic -- namely‚ running around with their hands over their ears screaming‚ "MOMMY‚ MAKE IT STOP!" As someone who lives to see the comfort zone getting slapped upside the paradigm‚ I've loved reedman Bryan Murray's avant-jazz take on country-music icon Merle Haggard right from the jump‚ and I'm happy to report that Still Alive and Kickin' Down the Walls is just as incendiary as Pretend‚ and makes me laugh just as much.
Anyone raised to believe Tim McGraw and Toby Keith's catalog is legitimate country music would probably smile at guitarist Jon Lundborn's snarling opening of "Ramblin' Fever." It's a little hotter than the "rockin' country" that dominates the genre these days‚ but it's in the ballpark‚ and drummer Danny Fischer's straight-up backbeat will definitely get your boots tapping. The arrival of Murray and Jon Irabegon's saxophones is no cause for alarm‚ but as they start serving serial chaos to all and sundry‚ the country fans realize they're not in Kansas anymore‚ and this isn't Boots Randolph they're listening to! The screaming harmony on the last chorus is guaranteed to clear out the dead wood‚ along with whatever brain cells weren't tied down beforehand.
There's a lot to love about Still Alive: The power‚ the range‚ how much Murray and Irabegon enable each other's creative insanity‚ and that Irabegon scorches as much earth here as he does with MOPDTK. For me‚ though‚ the best part of the Haggards is that Murray didn't ditch the roots of Haggard's music. "San Antonio Rose" and "Mixed Up Mess of a Heart" wouldn't be nearly as good without the Texas swing sound that anchors them; "Sing a Sad Song" is just as much a heartsore ballad as it ever was -- even more so with the barely-hinged tears pouring out of Murray's tenor; and "Seeing Eye Dog" has buckets full of the rockabilly sound that got Elvis started and kept Johnny Cash going strong for many a decade. Murray's spoken intro to "Turnin' Off A Memory" shows as much love for Haggard as his borderline-homicidal duet with Irabegon.
Still Alive ends with a ten-minute version of "If We Make It to December" that slowly disintegrates before our eyes; extra beats are seemingly added at random by Fischer and bassist Moppa Elliott‚ and all the solos start and end in the same place -- Nowhere. Then Murray and Irabegon start making ridiculous noises with random instruments‚ and the rest of the group dives right in after them. Essentially‚ we're hearing Last Call ("And we mean it this time‚ Billy Ray…") at the country club‚ and everything's a bit of a blur‚ so the band -- which has been playing this shit since Happy Hour -- has decided to Go Rogue. It's deconstruction at its finest‚ it's funny as Hell‚ and if I still drank whiskey‚ I'd raise a glass to Bryan and the Haggards for staying strong and staying the course.