by: Thomas D. Mooney
Go ahead. There’s plenty of room. Here, I’ll even help you on.
This is me convincing you to go ahead and jump onto The Dirty River Boys bandwagon if you haven’t already. Really though, The DRB don’t need me doing any persuading; their debut album “Science of Flight” does more than enough on its own.
I’m not going to go really deep into the long-term impact I see with the album, but rather, I’m just going to talk about the overall greatness and enjoyment of the album (Side Note: I really see this–as well as a host of other albums/artists–being a milestone and moment in which you’ll be able to go back to and see when the “Texas Country” sound changed from an arena-rock, carbon copied, and shallow version to a more substantial, folk-influenced, and roots-embracing sound. I think you’re seeing a movement in the works headlined by the likes of Turnpike Troubadours, Dirty River Boys, Uncle Lucius, Sons of Fathers, etc that are more influenced by ’70s country songwriters and modern indie, folk, and bluegrass bands than anything else. Roots.)
With “Science of Flight,” the large looming question I think the majority of people were asking themselves was how The Dirty River Boys were going to capture the intensity, magnitude, and raw energy of their live shows onto a studio album. Was this going to sound and feel like a live performance? Were they going to take the approach of it being a studio creation and embrace that experience making it more of a tangible work of art? Was “Science of Flight” going to have the pulse that their live show has?
Fret not, friends; “Science of Flight” does indeed have a pulse. It races on. It gets dialed back, becomes almost silent. Drives songs forward. It takes a backseat.
There’s plenty of familiarity on the album, but the best parts of “Science of Flight” I think are the moments that we see a quieter, more reserved, and intimate Dirty River Boys. A handful of songs on the record show another side of vocalist-guitarists Nino Cooper and Marco Gutierrez as songwriters. We’ve seen the two lyricists produce songs in the past that have shown that promise, but I don’t think to the degree of “Science of Flight’s” staples.
Their previous two EPs, “Long Cold Fall” and Train Station,” certainly showed the acoustic quartet refining their brand of outlaw folk, but like most EPs, are just that, extended plays. It’s not that either release are bad by any means, but rather were too short to really show the Dirty River Boys at full force. They left you thinking they weren’t finished telling you the full story. That parts of their tall tales and exercises in character sketches were just incomplete. Percussionist (primarily the cajon) Travis Stearns, bassist Colton “CJ” James, Cooper, and Gutierrez show you that picture in full with “Science of Flight.”
“Science of Flight” plays like a soundtrack for dusty West Texas desert characters that you could see in any Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry novel. There’s numerous occasions where you’re positive that Cooper and Gutierrez are talking from experience and revealing their own personal story, but not too much of it. Like many great songwriters, they walk the line where you know they’re not telling the complete truth but still making a point and revealing the human experience.
The (mostly) El Paso natives perfectly blend the stark, pure balladry of ’70s Texas songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt, ’70s Rolling Stones grit, attitude, and demeanor, the organic, raw emotion of The Ramones, and the foundation of Old Crow Medicine Show. Don’t misinterpret that assessment though; “Science of Flight” is as original, fresh, and crisp as it can possibly be. It’s those elements done the Dirty River Boys way.
1. “Dried Up”
The first song opens up like a distant train rambling down the tracks in the distance. It feels like one of those vast landscape shots that pan across deserted, barren land when suddenly the central character appears. DRB has been opening shows with this punchy roller coaster number for a while.
2. “Road Song”
“Road Song” has been a mainstay in the live show for a while. It’s DRB at their punkiest moment. It’s where Stearns goes into a controlled state of chaos on the cajon. Complete ear candy for the faithful.
This of course, was originally written by the late, great Townes Van Zandt. The true bar of Texas songwriting. They do it justice by breathing life into Van Zandt’s dusty, desolate original. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again, it’s more Steve Earle than Earle’s version that ended up on his Van Zandt tribute, “Townes.” Stearns plays the pulse just right. And where Van Zandt was despondent and lonely, Gutierrez sounds almost regretful with a slight edge of pride–in a Strokes attitude kind of way. It’s good stuff.
4. “Riverbed Wildflowers”
This is the first moment on the record where it feels like DRB they’re revealing journal worthy entries of heartbreak and regret. Cooper doesn’t sound like he’s singing to an audience, bur rather to a particular person, like we’re hearing one side of a long distance breakup phone call. It’s probably one of DRB’s strongest melodies to date.
5. “Youngblood Blues”
Gutierrez certainly does his best country Conor Oberst impression on “Youngblood Blues.” It feels like it’d have been perfect from in the middle of “Cassadaga” or Oberst’s self titled 2008 release. It’s Gutierrez at his most profound and delivering minimal, but earnest advice. It’s never been more simple, yet true. “If you’re happy, Kid, you got it right.”
6. “Raise Some Hell”
Another staple. It’s the Texas equivalent to Boston’s Dropkick Murphys’-penned anthem “Shipping Up to Boston.” The mandolin is the driving force on the song and gives it this old world European vibe. It’s whiskey-soaked and a foot-stomper for sure. There’s also subtle beer mug clamoring in the background that just adds character. It also proves that Cooper would have been a great pirate ship captain in another century (I mean, can you imagine the toasts he would have given?).
7. “In These Times”
It’s the one James-penned song on the record. It’s like a modern-day Hank Williams song without losing those ghostly Williams elements that make the hair on your arm stand on end. It also features a baby rattlesnake that James caught on his ranch. And that’s not even the most chilling moment on the song. That’d belong to the first time everyone else in the band joins in on the backing vocals in a very “O Brother Where Art Thou” kind of way.
8. “Another Night”
“That girl wasn’t anything. She ain’t nothing but a lonely feeling.” This time, it’s Gutierrez with on the end of a drunken break-up phone call–except this time, it feels like he’s not the one doing the breaking up. You know those moments (“I’m On Fire” and “Downbound Train”) on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Nebraska” in its entirety where he feels like the loneliest man on earth? “Another Night” has that same rejected feeling. It’s something that everyone has felt at least once.
9. “Letter to Whoever”
This is probably has the best Cooper and Gutierrez–and Stearns and James–at their most in tune and in sync. They’re engaged rushing back and forth between one another while Stearns and James are laying down a peddle to the floor beat.
10. “Lookin’ For the Heart”
This bluegrass meets Mariachi number is the shortest on “Science of Flight.” And while it’s only about two minutes in length, it stays with you. The banjo is straight up brilliant.
11. “Summer Sweet Summer”
This is where DRB shows they can write something with substance, but also commercial. It’s an ear worm song with driving guitars and a hook that’s better than just about anything on the present day radio. It’s refined and poppy, but also has the natural youthful feel of early Wilco, “A.M.” in particular.
12. “Heart Like That”
Refer to “Summer Sweet Summer.” It’s as if Cooper heard Gutierrez’ “Summer Sweet Summer” and decided he’d write a complement summer jam. I seriously challenge you to not sing a long to “Summer Sweet Summer” and “Heart Like That” after a minute in. There’s a Jakob Dylan or Jayhawks bounce to both of them. Perfect melodies.
13. “Medicine Show”
DRB jump into the time machine and set the time and place for Muscle Shoals, Alabama 1971. It’s got some accenting trumpet throughout that gives it a shot of New Orleans jazz very much in a Stones type of way.
14. “Science of Flight”
There’s a reason the album was also named “Science of Flight.” It very well could be Cooper’s best song to date. There’s a calm, mature sense to the song. If “Science of Flight” (the album) is a long, intertwining tale, “Science of Flight” (the song) would be its title character and overall main theme. It has Avett Brothers-esque composure throughout and is a redemption song through and through. Probably the most perfect moment on the album.
15. “Six Riders”
“Six Riders” is a straight up rambler. It lets the outlaw out in all of them. They’re the James Gang. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. The Wild Bunch. It’s myth building. It’s bravado and arrogance at its best. “Six riders coming for me and the kid, we’ve got six shots to kill them dead.” Now that’s confidence.
15. “El Pescador”
This Spanish song is somewhat a bonus track that only boosts the argument that DRB should record at least one Spanish EP (or album) in the future. It features Cooper’s father on vocals and the gut-string guitar. It just reassured my claims that you’ll see a DRB song in at least one Robert Rodriguez film in the future.
When The Dirty River Boys played The Blue Light last, we caught up with the band to discuss the new album.
New Slang: You guys have the Townes Van Zandt “Lungs” cover on the record. I know you guys have performed it for a while live, but it’s something I didn’t think would actually go on a studio album.
Marco Gutierrez: It was kind of one of the last-minute ones I think. We just decided to put it on there since we love playing it live. You know, I hope we did it justice. We just love playing it live. I love the way it came out on the record too. We co-produced it with Dave Percefull and he had some cool ideas for the instrumentation and everything that went into that song. At one point, we got a walkie-talkie and the resonator and I whispered something in one end of the walkie-talkie and he put it up to the resonator and it got picked up. Cool stuff like that, man.
NS: This is obviously your debut full length. There’s a good mixture of new songs in addition to songs that fans are familiar with that have been part of the live show for a while, such as “Road Song,” “Raise Some Hell,” and “Six Riders.” How’d you guys decide on what direction you wanted to push them in? Were you guys going for a complete copy of what you guys originally did to them live or did you want to do something different with them?
MG: I think we wanted the record in general to transfer the energy of the live show. Songs like “Six Riders” and “Road Song,” they’ve all since their initial phase, they’ve gone through so much change. I think we wanted to reproduce that in the studio. I’m pleased with it.
Colton James: Honestly, I don’t have a plan. I don’t know. I just wake up and try and make it through the day [laughs].
Nino Cooper: They might sound like we added a lot of things in the different details that we did. But you know, we didn’t have chance on our first EPs to really experiment on the sound of stuff. This time we had a lot more time. We got to experiment on a few different things.
CJ: Things got buckwild. Shit got weird, man.
MG: [laughs ]Yeah. CJ, on “In These Times,” he brought a live rattlesnake to the studio. They put a condenser mic in the glass aquarium and in the breakdown, you can hear the rattling. It’s real exciting. I got real excited. [To CJ] You got a snake on the album!
NS: Yeah. I read about that. Went back and you can definitely hear it. It’s definitely a real cool moment. There’s also a lot of intimate moments on the album. There are songs that seem to be more personal. They’re more quiet by Dirty River Boys standards.
MG: My favorite quieter song on that record might be “Science of Flight,” the title song the record is named after. It’s one of those where we’re really trying to keep writing honest lyrics. That’s what the whole thing is about. Even in the louder songs we try and keep that, but as far as the quieter ones are concerned, that’s one of those moments where I go, “Damnit, why didn’t I write that one? Why couldn’t I do that?” There’s definitely more intimate moments on the record. [To Nino] Talk about “Science of Flight.”
NC: That song is about falling down and having that certain something to keep you go again. In short, it’s a song about hope and the feathers resembles whatever it is that keeps you going. Whatever gets you up in the morning.
NS: To me, this album is showing off a lot of different sides of you guys. Different layers. What do you think the audience is going to think of these different songs?
NC: I don’t think we really know [laughs].
MG: I’m hoping they take it pretty well. I think sometimes we get thrown into the whole Red Dirt-Texas Country scene, and while regionally we are, I don’t think we are. I’m hoping that some of our fans aren’t expecting that and aren’t disappointed because it’s not real [Texas Country]. We’re trying to–Dirty River Boys aren’t just country. We’re not just rock or a Celtic band. We try and mix it up. I think the true Dirty River Boys fan will really enjoy the record when they get it.
NS: One song, “Youngblood Blues,” it wasn’t the first or second time I listened to it, but a couple of times in, it felt very “Cassadaga” era Bright Eyes. You know?
MG: [Laughs] Yeah. You know, Conor Oberst, him and Ryan Adams are kind of my modern-day favorite songwriters. Lyrically I love him. I’m definitely heavily influenced by Conor. “Cassadaga,” it’s one of my favorite records. The new one, “The People’s Key,” that’s my favorite. Good call, man.
NS: [To CJ] Your song “In These Times” is on the album and this is more directed towards you. I know it probably wasn’t this way on a personal level, but I guess on a professional level, were you intimidated bringing a song of yours to the table since these guys have been the chief songwriters?
CJ: Yes and no I guess. I’ve been writing songs my whole life. Mostly depressing slow songs about dying. I’ve got hundreds of songs. I’ve lost my mind more than a few times. That’s all I write about.
MG: I think when we met CJ and started playing with him, we figured out he had the best voice out of all of us. He actually didn’t want the song on the record and we all pushed for it. Hopefully on the next record there is more CJ songs.
NS: What’s the favorite moment on the album–not even favorite song. Favorite moment that happens on the album? All three of you.
MG: Favorite moment…
CJ: My favorite moment was the day it was done.
NC: Yeah. It was a pain in the ass sometimes.
MG: I don’t know. My favorite–well, it’s hard to decide since there are so many cool moments where I go “Dang, I can’t believe we pulled that off.” I think my favorite moment though is when we were recording “Letter To Whoever.”
CJ: I was real excited when we were recording that.
MG: Yeah. It had an original four on the floor kick part. And then it had some cool lead guitar parts. Dave gave us some really cool ideas. And then we pulled up this article on a bullfight.
NC: It was a Spanish bullfighting article and I sang it in this old condenser mic in this Spanish voice. It’s me acting like a radio announcer. I’m reading this article in Spanish about bullfighting. That’s what Dave said it reminded him of. He said, “This reminds me of bullfighting on acid. [laughs].” And during the breakdown, I have this old radio announcer voice and just tried to get this bullfighting vibe to it.
MG: Has that initial four on the floor and then eventually builds into this crazy–Travis was just beating on the drum. And not even in time at points. That’s what we wanted it to be. And then we had this crazy, weird–[To Nino] I don’t know if you’d be able to do that solo again.
NC: Yeah, that’s probably my favorite part. We did these weird, experimental things on the guitar.
MG: Yeah. And Dave, he came through on the producing. He had us good ideas. That was definitely a moment where we went “Yeah! That’s cool.”