(Kealon Records, CD)
Ah, alt-country. Once upon a time, the bastard child of dusty country aesthetic and sneering rock sensibility was viewed as a vibrant, well, alternative, to the increasingly homogenized fare issuing from the rhinestone-studded bowels of Nashville. Over the years, what was initially a subversive offshoot blossomed into a legitimate classification within popular music, complete with sub-genres of its own. But legitimacy and popularity inevitably begat a watering down of the high-test whiskey, so to speak, that once fueled the genre. For every Uncle Tupelo, Blood Oranges or Jayhawks came dozens of lesser rodeo-sideshow wannabes mistaking twang for artistic ingenuity and authenticity. Sales of snap-button cowboy shirts and black “CASH” T-shirts went through the roof. And somewhere — perhaps an unmarked grave at Joshua Tree — Gram Parsons wept.
Welcome to the Nowhere Motel, the latest from Pennsylvania’s Greg Koons and the Misbegotten, seems something of a microcosm of the history of alt-country. As a songwriter, Koons has moments of trail-weary brilliance that could perhaps console even the aforementioned Grievous Angel. However, too much of his album is marred by the sort of milquetoast laziness currently cannibalizing the genre.
The disc begins inauspiciously with “Nowhere to Them, Somewhere to Me” and “Here She Comes,” both of which lean feebly on trite genre contrivances. Feigned Southern drawl? Check. Paint-by-numbers Telecaster riffery? Check. Hackneyed lyrics about some unnamed American small town? Don’t get me started.
But things pick up by the fourth track, “There But By the Grace of God Go I.” Koons again invests in timeworn Americana storytelling. But this time around, he injects a wry sensibility that’s lacking on previous cuts. Moreover, he scraps his stylized vocal delivery in favor of more natural tones, and ultimately resembles a less histrionic Roy Orbison as opposed to a poor man’s Tom Petty.
The trend continues on “Los Angeles Looks Prettier on TV.” Of all his tunes, this one suggests that beneath Koons’ forced exterior lurks a genuinely insightful lyricist. The song bears a cool, melancholy air that is nostalgic but not overly sentimental.
The remainder of Welcome to the Nowhere Motel continues in similarly hit-or-miss fashion. Promising tunes such as “Candy Ain’t a Hooker No More” and “New Boyfriend” are waylaid by clumsy turns like “Every Once in a While” and “A Picture of My Pa Before He Died in Vietnam,” the last of which veers too close to Nashville schmaltz for comfort. Alt-country fans might hope that, going forward, Koons will focus on the first part of the genre’s definition.