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Published: 2010/02/16
by Brian Robbins

Backyard Tire Fire
Good To Be

Kelsey Street

Backyard Tire Fire is so crystal-clear about who they are that you are left with nothing else to do but shake your head and turn the music up. Good To Be comes at the point in their history (nine years and five albums) where they could be either one of two things:

A.) So predictable that you could read the song titles on the jacket cover and almost guess what key they’re in – or –

B.) Floundering and flailing, trying to grab a handful of the latest “sound” and ending up never really sounding like anything.

But no. Backyard Tire Fire is neither of those. And neither are they another Jayhawks/Son Volt/early Wilco soundalike, which they could easily be. Sure, there’s enough midrange-boosted guitar crunch to tickle the fancy of fans of any of those bands, but there’s always a twist to any given tune that makes you say, “Shit – I didn’t see that coming.”

Take, for instance, the opener, “Roadsong #39.” Here we find BTF – Ed Anderson (vocals/guitars/keys), brother Matt (bass/vocals), and Tim Kramp (drums/percussion) – laying down some serious long-haul vibes. This could easily be a piss-and-moan session (and would be in most cases) – but not here.

There’s a smell that I know
At the end of the show
It’s sweaty and it’s smoky and it’s ripe
And it’s rock and roll

Ed Anderson growls it out as a statement of fact – it’s the way it is … and he knows it. But beyond that, just when a textbook roadrock song would explode into a gale of wailing guitars (some screeching slide being most effective), Anderson digs deep into a six-string ACOUSTIC. That’s right; forget the tube-amp ozone for a moment – he yanks, bends, and beats the living dog snot out of the thing. You can feel the cracks in the finish and the scratches on the pickguard from here.

There’s more to the Tire Fire than grit and grease, though. At times (“Ready or Not,” “Good To Be”) chugging palm-muted guitar holds hands with bubbly basslines, happy synth, and hook-you-the-first-time choruses … sort of what the late-‘70s-era Cars would’ve sounded like if they’d hocked their blowdryers and bought some beer with the money.

Or take “Estelle”, who’s sweet-on-the-surface-but-simmering-just-beneath vibe recalls some of John Hiatt’s Little Village period with Ry Cooder taking care of the dirty work. Or how about “Food For Thought” – by the time you reach the everybody-on-the-block-singalong “don’t matter at all” section at the end, you’ll swear you’re in the middle of some doo-wop Broadway musical for a moment with a chorus line of leather-jacketed and white-teed punks belting it out.

Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin was BTF’s studio guru for Good To Be and he captured every facet of the band – from the jangle of “Hell and Back” to the finger-snapping smiley pop of “Learning to Swim.” (Good thing Berlin was already in the studio – they would’ve had to fly him in for the just-right absolutely honking sax break on the latter.)

When it’s all said and done, Good To Be sounds like the soundtrack of a movie yet to be made … or maybe it’s the soundtrack to Backyard Tire Fire’s own movie that they’re living. “Once Upon a Time” makes for a perfect closer as the credits roll – all Beatlely harmonies and swirl with just enough of a touch of unsettling dissonance at the very end to keep it real.

And that’s just exactly what BTF does throughout all the twists and turns of this album: they stay true to themselves and keep it real.

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