Bobby Bare, Jr. could've phoned in a career. He could've exploited the fact that he's the son of iconic Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare, was born into Nashville's Music Row elite, and counted artists like Shel Silverstein as close family friends and George Jones and Tammy Wynette as next door neighbors. Instead, Bobby blazed a path of unique songwriting craftsmanship with a voice that blows through you like an unyielding wind on the desolate prairie.
Undefeated is BBJ's first release since 2010 and what he calls his "break-up record," but the whole of it is much more involved: this isn't escapism; it's an emotional survival guide. Undefeated is ten songs of reality checks, clever wordplay, and daring arrangements, the aural companion to that buddy who pulls up a bar stool next to yours to help soak away your sorrows. Like a bespectacled, curly haired prizefighter whose opponent is on the ropes, Bobby goes at each release as if it might be his last round, focused, and full of energy and purpose. Undefeated is no different. The song list is a war chest of formidable uppercuts (e.g. distorted pop rock gems "North of Alabama By Mornin'" and "Don't Stand At the Stove"), eye-splitting right jabs (open and orchestral "Don't Wanna Know" and "The Elegant Imposter"), and sneaky left hooks (the crescendoing "As Forever Became Never Again").
Undefeated is an album of distinct balance, but with raw and varied textures. "North of Alabama By Mornin'" leads with a murky, palm-muted electric guitar and striding, crunchy organ backbeat; a combination that is undeniably kinetic à la Humble Pie's '70s boogie grooves and sinister and sexy, like a Southern doppelganger to Greg Dulli/The Twilight Singers. Bare Jr.'s ghostly high/low vocal layers echo the bleak picture of a metaphorical road trip, when his confidence slips, "Am I holding the steering wheel or is it holding me?/ The transmission is slipping like a pigeon through a tiger's teeth." By the song's finale, though, jubilant yelps ("Oh! Ho! Ho! We're goin' home!") and the electric guitar's pinch-harmonic wailing, indicate that things are headed in the right direction.
What's most striking about BBJ is his proficiency with a broad sonic palette that fluently conjures uncommon impressions of life's soul-arresting experiences. "The Big Time" is rock 'n' roll reinterpreted through the lens of soulful pedaled bass, celebratory and punchy brass, and the facade of big-city talk ("You're gonna miss me after I hit the big time/ Gonna get brand new famous friends."). In "Blame Everybody (But Yourself)" the band -- Young Criminals' Starvation League -- taps into a piano-inflected British invasion/Herman's Hermits sort of vibe, blended with the melancholic echo chamber aesthetic of My Morning Jacket.
At other moments, Bobby channels his country DNA (like in the Hayes Carll co-penned "My Baby Took My Baby Away"), mirror-ball gazing '70s R&B/soul ("Undefeated"), and bright ballads from the hills and hollers of Venice Beach ("If She Cared"). From anyone else, this refusal to play it on the straight and narrow would sound cluttered and disjointed, but Bobby never breaks a sweat.
YOUNG CRIMINALS' STARVATION LEAGUE PERSONNEL:
Jordan Caress on bass/vocals, Doni Schroader (formerly of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) on drums, Van Campbell (Black Diamond Heavies) on drums, Matt Rowland on keys, Carey Kotsionis on background vocals, Richie Kirkpatrick on guitars/bass, David Vandervelde on guitars/bass, Michael "Grimey" Grimes on bass, Bobby Bare, Jr. on vocals and guitar.