by Edd Hurt
It's a very strange record, and that's what takes Music City USA to another level of expression entirely. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Kels Koch has come up with one of the great semi-decipherable rock 'n' roll statements in recent memory, and Koch's efficient little trio plays their rockabilly frantically, as if they have something to prove and three minutes in which to do it. The opening track, "Music City USA," finds Koch singing about living in hell — that's Nashville, if you haven't guessed by now — and wondering about his place in the musical firmament. He's just another idiot who came to town trying to play the music he once believed in. As he sings, "Please don't let me be just another hack in Music City, USA." But it's too late — he already is.
"Music City USA" features a short, demented guitar solo, Koch's sub-Elvis, slobbering vocals, and some very Nick Lowe-esque changes in the bridge. Suitable for Stiff Records circa 1979, it's raw and somewhat out of control, just like the record as a whole. You have to listen closely to catch Koch's strange lyrics, because this is music of clamorous guitars and that thin, sharp sound that characterizes true rockabilly. For example, "Is It Cold in Here (Or Is It Just You?)" finds Koch singing in the voice of a minor teen idol of the late 1950s: "When I step from the shower / Feeling like I'm turning blue / Of course, in the bedroom /Things have certainly cooled."
Elsewhere, "Dakota" and "Sarah Winchester" are narratives that initially seem as received as the music that accompanies them, but Koch doesn't play them completely straight. The record functions right on the edge of parody, and it's to Koch's credit that songs such as the previously mentioned "Sarah Winchester" and the very unusual "The Horse-Driven Ambulance" actually have something interesting and idiosyncratic to say about myth, history, death and perhaps even real estate — the big subjects.
The music romps along with hand claps, stomping drums and plenty of nifty flourishes in the arrangements that make it clear these guys have studied plenty of great old records. Koch's guitar gets perfect accompaniment from Hayden Poynter's bass and Shannon Edens' drums. Jimmy Harper plays steel on three tracks, but Music City USA is a record about country music, not a country music record. Koch has been around — he once led a version of Million Sellers in Austin, Texas. Not everything works as elegantly as it should, with a couple of songs a bit ungainly and Koch's vocals straining at all times at the limits of mannerism. Still, if you think Jon Langford and The Mekons have something to say about the way being a music lover in a music city-state — that's Nashville for sure, cat daddy, but also the Tennessee of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Sam C. Phillips — can warp your brain and make you feel discarded, you just may want to hear Music City USA.