Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys In The Campfire
(Done To Death Music)
While the breadth of musical styles that Tommy Stinson has approached in his career has not been small (beginning first with indie rock with The Replacements, Stinson has has touched on punk with Bash & Pop and Perfect as well as undeniably mainstream, “for the paycheque” rock with Soul Asylum and Guns N’ Roses), it would be hard to deny that everything the singer/multi-instrumentalist has tried has been the perfect fit for him. Sometimes, Stinson’s ambition has exceeded his reach and that fact has clearly been reflected on the records which has featured his name. Even so though, it can’t be denied that, when the man is on, artist is dead on the mark and that fact is illustrated fantastically on Wronger, Tommy Stinson’s first album with Chip Roberts under the name Cowboys In The Campfire.
As soon as “Here We Go Again” opens the A-side of the album, fans of Tommy Stinson’s work with The Replacements will begin to feel as though they’ve returned home. There, with the help of some very well-placed horns, acoustic instruments (both acoustic guitars and what sounds like either a ukulele or a cigar box guitar) and a spirit which mirrors that of the best songs on Pleased To Meet Me, Stinson is able to cast a spell over those listening which will hold them as well and as dearly as any fan could hope. With lyrics about courting disaster and treading close to the edge but not falling on its face – complete with a bit of a slur which implies that a bit of liquid courage was required to get through the take – Stinson recalls the heart of The ‘Mats, but does it in a true and genuine way; not just playing the easy cards because he knows that’s what fans want to hear, “Here We Go Again” plays like a sweet and balladesque song because that’s the only way Stinson know how to articulate how nervous he is about entering the trenches again.
After “Here We Go Again” casts the album’s spell, Stinson wastes no time jumping hard and head-first into some fantastic rock waters. First, “That’s It” raids John Lennon’s pantry (which was obviously left well-stocked after the singer made Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1975) and keep that feel for “Schemes” while also seasoning it with some “Don’t Think Twice”-era Dylan for “Mr. Wrong” and “Fall Apart Together.” In each case, the love with which each song is delivered is impossible to miss and longtime fans who might have thought that “Tommy’s doing country” was little more than a convenient tactic to just get the music out in a time when such releases are fashionable will modestly admit that they were wrong and they misjudged the artist. By the time “Fall Apart Together” closes the A-side of the album, listeners will undoubtedly be ready for more, and so will be anxious to flip the record over and receive a second side.
While the A-side of Wronger made the most of its folky, alt-country inspiration and Tommy Stinson’s indie rock pedigree with excellent results, the B-side opens in a wholly unexpected way with “Hey Man.” There, with a little help from a piano and pedal steel guitar, Stinson strikes upon a startling down note as he contemplates uncertainties that it’s not 100 per cent clear he’s ever experienced (discussions of, “saving the bullets for the range,” the world having him on a string and and the grass perpetually being greener somewhere he’s not standing are ideas which come up here) with a surprisingly candid voice which substantiates the song’s themes in a manner that’s much better than expected. Listeners will happily follow Stinson down the rabbit hole here and, when the song finally closes on a major chord rather than a minor, listeners will find they feel energized to continue through the side, boldly. “We Ain’t responds to that energetic ending by traipsing melodically through a solid mid-tempo rocker and then “Karma’s Bitch” with the closest to an out-and-out country song on the side. The energy there is great, and then “Souls” indulges a vaguely muddled but melodic number before finally closing out the album with the best, strongest and most obvious possible closer on the album, “Dream.” There, with a pretty spry acoustic guitar pattern playing, Tommy Stinson unloads the last heartbreak on the album while Chip Roberts layers some great country-rock licks onto the song to make it a dense and delightful note on which to close.
Standing back from it and taking the album as a whole, it might sound contrived to call Wronger the best album associated with Tommy Stinson’s name in decades – but consider that statement in context, for a minute. Tommy Stinson has not really stopped making music since he started in 1981. He’s been the epitome of the journeyman player, but the band he’s best known for making music with stopped making music in 1990. With that in mind, it could easily be contended that Wronger represents a new and fresh drink of water from Tommy Stinson, after an incredibly long dry spell. Hoping for more in the future would be nice but, for right now, those who discover Wronger should be satisfied – this time, Stinson got it right. [Bill Adams]
Wronger is out now. Buy it here, directly from Tommy Stinson’s official store on Cobraside Records.