I owe American Gun quite a bit. If it wasn’t for the group, I might not be writing about local music today. As a young college student already fairly arrogant and smug in my musical tastes, I was skeptical to the idea that Columbia, SC could be the home to such a wealth of local musicians and bands. A vaguely knew groups like Hootie & the Blowfish and Crossfade emerged from the town, but their success seemed to support my skepticism all the more. Columbia isn’t a music town–Athens, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and the ilk are the independent music hotbeds of the Southeast. But on a single off-chance, I was listening to WUSC 90.5 FM, Columbia’s college radio station and the live DJ was promoting the upcoming Free Times Music Crawl, which showcases Columbia’s local talent (and quite well, I might add). The next song he put on simply blew me away with its subtle Americana beauty. A gradually crescendo of electric guitar chiming and a haunted, repeating vocal plea seemed to have tapped into the most elemental idea of a song. That tune was American Gun’s “Little Sister” from their first record Dark Southern Hearts, whose album title I have borrowed for my blog. The rest is not exactly history to anyone but me, but to this day I remain humbled by that experience–first hearing the song on the radio, and then being bombarded by that night (and many nights since) by the wealth of unknown talent in this city.
Fast forward more than four years later, and the group that literally changed my life is still alive and kickin’. Their new soon-to-be-released third record, Devil Showed Me His Hand is arguably their most explosive effort put to tape. The group officially unleashes their “new” (he’s been playing with them for a couple of years now) secret weapon for the first time on record–former Boxing Day/Capitols lead guitarist Noel Rodgers, who adds considerable sonic might to a band that already had a reputation for roots rock with a roar. His versatile playing and searing guitar leads are all over this one, from straight-forward Southern rock glory licks to soaring, effects-laden atmospherics. Along with Rodgers, the new record prominently features guest musicians on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, pedal steel, keyboard and B3 organ–giving the band a far more expansive and subtler sound than their raucous live shows. Bands like Lucero, the Drive-by Truckers, Steve Earle and Uncle Tupelo are the most obvious musical relatives, but as much for those artists’ willingness to take on different styles and approaches within the loose alternative country moniker they all get saddled with than anything else. But, given the type of music we are talking about, it ultimately comes down to how good the songwriting is–which is where the band’s ultimate strength lies.
Featuring two of the best singer/songwriters in South Carolina in a single band, it is almost a given the band will have a quality set of songs each time around, as Devil easily proves. The rootsier of the two songwriters, Donald Merckle, delivers up the buoyant, escapist folk-pop of “Girl in Texas” and what is easily the darkest song the band has come with in the disturbingly resigned title track. He also delivers the band’s first big traditional ballad, the archetypal “Killing Me,” and a straight-forward punk song (“The Underground”) that is a wry tribute to The Velvet Underground. Meanwhile his partner-in-crime, Todd Mathis, delivers up a set of guitar-heavy tunes that captures the raucous nature of the band’s live dynamic. After a couple of country-tinged opening songs (the rollicking country-punk of “13 Women” and the emotionally vulnerable “Mexican Restaurant”), Mathis delivers a trio of songs that wear their Brit-rock influence warmly on their sleeves–the bitter-yet-hopeful “My Friends,” the incredibly hooky “How Not to Fall in Love,” and the epic, spiraling “Find Some Good.” After Merckle’s encounter with the devil on the title track, the record closes with a Mathis gospel number, the church choir-backed “Are You Ready.” The song tugs and pulls between being a rock n’ roll closing number and a sincere attempt at a gospel tune, encompassing the aesthetic of the band in a nutshell–no matter what kind of song they are going for, they ultimately sound like themselves, in the best way possible.
As for the production and process of making the record, the band, somewhat amazingly, has created a vibrant, energetic rock n’ roll record utilizing local mixer Paul Bodamer (of the Jangly Records collective) and the engineering talents of Steve Slavich at the Jam Room–making this an incredibly compelling example of local DIY record making that is every bit as polished and professional as any record you are likely to buy this year. This is a band that is as good if not better than there nationally-touring contemporaries, so here’s to hoping this record can reach as many ears as possible!
American Gun is releasing Devil Showed Me His Hand @ the Art Bar this Saturday, December 5th. Cover is $4, or $6 w/ CD. Westbank & Rob Lindsey open.