Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire
The longstanding friendship and musical partnership between Philly guitar-slinger Chip Roberts and Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson (also a veteran of Bash & Pop, Perfect, Guns N’ Roses, and Soul Asylum) has yielded the pair’s debut album as Cowboys in the Campfire. Stinson in particular, has roots in some of the loudest and most aggressive music ever brought to your local stage or stereo. Although the attitude is well in evidence, Wronger mines different veins of rich and wry American roots and classic country music. The album begins with the sound of Stinson’s ukulele and a bristling horn section on “Here We Go Again.” With its loping swing, the song isn’t that far removed from a ‘Mats song like “Androgynous.” With his perfectly weathered tenor, Stinson sings a lifer’s story of devotion to music despite any perils, pitfalls, and indignities, while Roberts adds guttural baritone guitar licks drawn from a Twilight Zone version of “Wichita Lineman.” “That’s It” is a fit of rambunctious rockabilly sounding like punk rock night in Bakersfield. In addition to a warped roots-rock riff, Roberts adds solos with a demented twang. X founder John Doe swipes the bass from Stinson’s hands for several songs, including the folksy strummer “Mr. Wrong,” in which Stinson takes his walking papers and wishes his former lover better luck with the next guy. Shimmering Hammond organ and bossa nova percussion color “Schemes,” a sensitive and subdued ballad akin to “Swingin’ Party.” Roberts’ weeping steel guitar and snapping rhythm work lay the foundation for Stinson’s portrait of one last round of doomed romance during “Fall Apart Together.” “Hey Man” gets a bit socio-political but makes its anti-war statement with a light touch and Stinson’s careworn melody. “Hey, man, save your bullets for the range,” he sings against a baroque string section and languid fretless bass. Doe’s upright bass propels “We Ain’t,” an acoustic country-pop number a la Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sans drums. Stinson sings to his life partner that neither of them seems to be quite smart enough to learn from their mistakes. Robert’s lively chicken-picking and loopy solo keep the humor in evidence. “Karma’s Bitch” is a hard-luck story drawing upon a twisted true-life story from a Maryland beach community in which a man divorced his alcoholic wife only to begin dating her daughter – who eventually “drank herself to death.” Roberts plays deceptively summery steel guitar as the sad tale unfolds. “Souls” is downtempo, soulful torch-pop with a winsome melody and euphoric chorus delivered in Stinson’s raspy voice.
The album concludes with the tumbling arpeggios of “Dream.” Stinson’s aching pop melody is driven by Otto Hauser’s swinging whomp-smack on the drums, while the singer laments hopes and visions that have given way to time and regret. Despite a lengthy career and copious catalog, Stinson doesn’t often get his due as a sharp-witted, expert crafter of songs. Wronger may correct that. This is a compelling set of evocative stories and sketches that measure well against the work of Stinson’s old friend Mr. Westberg, who would have every right to be proud of any comparisons between his characters to the (mostly) loveable and relatable wrecks found here.
Cowboys in the Campfire perform at Liar’s Club on Wednesday, July 12th
– Jeff Elbel