Monday, February 15, 2016

Still Looking For Lewis And Clark: A Look At Final Wild Songs, The Long Ryders Box Set From Cherry Red Records

Despite those early rallying cries of "Join My Gang", The Long Ryders were a band sometimes hard to embrace. And that's an odd thing to say when one considers the pains the group took to have such broad appeal. Far too lefty to appeal to hardcore country music fans, too country to appeal to U2 fans, and far too rootsy at a time when that sort of thing was giving way to synthesizers and drum machines, The Long Ryders were, Byrds references notwithstanding, the Eighties answer to Credence. Punchy and beefy, the songs of The Long Ryders bridged multiple genres with ease. The band is perpetually in need of a rediscovery and now we've just about got the ground-work for one.

Final Wild Songs by The Long Ryders is out now on Cherry Red. It collects...just about everything this band put out and for that I'd like to first say "Thank you!" to the good folks at Cherry Red Records. They've done the world a favor 'cause these are some of the best releases of an era that gave birth to too much forgettable music.

Rising from the Paisley Underground, The Long Ryders, led by Sid Griffin, blended a healthy dose of Byrds worship with nods in the direction of the more mainstream style of songwriters like John Fogerty. That journey from the U.S. jangle wilderness (in an era when R.E.M. seemed like the only band lucky enough to be gaining traction with McGuinn-affectations) to the realms of wannabe stadium rock is charted here on Final Wild Songs since the set collects just about everything this band ever recorded, throwing in a live album for good measure. Fans of The Long Ryders should rejoice. Not a fan yet? You will be the end of this one.

Disc 1 kicks off with 1983's nearly-perfect 10-5-60 EP, the anthemic "And She Rides" rubbing up against the Blasters-like twang of "You Don't Know What's Right", and all 5 cuts of that seminal EP previewing the fuller sound of the debut full-length Native Sons. If the band sounds just as assured here as they did on 10-5-60, they are also more comfortable taking risks -- the positively beautiful and Beatlesque "Too Close to the Light", or the rough rockabilly of "Tell It To The Judge On Sunday", for example. "Ivory Tower" with its Byrds-isms immediately and understandably became a staple of the Long Ryders live canon but it's on "Run Dusty Run" that Sid and the boys sound most at ease. Bonus cuts on this first disc include the cover of blues standard "Black Girl" better known as "In The Pines" in its Nirvana cover version, along with a pretty good stab at Dylan's "Masters of War", a song that seems tailor-made for this incarnation of The Long Ryders.

State of Our Union, the band's breakthrough album on Island Records, takes up the bulk of Disc 2 and it actually sounds better than it did 30 years ago. Little is dated here as stuff like "Looking for Lewis and Clark" and "Lights of Downtown" positively burst out of the speakers. The CCR grind of "W.D.I.A." really works well still, in some ways a better cut now than I considered it back when I was 18. Now it sounds like something that prefigures U2's "Angel of Harlem" in some odd way. The big draw among the bonus cuts on Disc 2 is probably "Southside of the Story" which remarkably rivals John Cougar Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." in such a way that one wonders if the artists were intentionally referencing each other. "Christmas in New Zealand" is a humorous novelty song that also hints at the surprising lack of love that Brit DJ John Peel showed for these guys.

Two Fisted tales was the last album from The Long Ryders to date and it's a semi-misstep. Released on Island in 1987, the year of The Joshua Tree, it's clear that the band -- or their producers -- was going for a big sound this time out but the band was never going to break big in the way that that year's fluke hit from Georgia Satellites did, for example. And it's worth mentioning that Southern-influenced band here 'cause there are certainly similarities sonically on this album. Like the Georgia Satellites, The Long Ryders were a fine band whose fate was ultimately decided by the band's inability to stick to one genre. That makes it harder for mainstream listeners to grab on to the music but it's also, on the plus side, a sign of a band's versatility. The Long Ryders here shine brightest on a cover of "I Want You Bad" by NRBQ. While it sounds like a hit single to me, it obviously wasn't. "Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home" and "Spectacular Fall" don't so much show the strengths of The Long Ryders as much as they reveal the extent to which Island Records was hoping that this band would be another U2. Not horrible but not nearly as interesting and exciting as anything on the earlier releases from this band. "Gunslinger Man" is a nearly country punk jab at President Ronnie and it probably worked better in 1987 than it does now. Highlights of Disc 3 include a few impressive demos and the superb "Ring Bells" which rocks as hard as much of the canon of this band.

The final CD in Final Wild Songs is a 1985 live concert recorded in the Netherlands. The band burns through their back catalog including a stab at country standard "Six Days on the Road" and another take on "Masters of War" from Dylan. The Long Ryders sound amazing here and one still marvels at why this band wasn't more popular despite the genre-hopping.

Final Wild Songs confirms the greatness of The Long Ryders. There's a breadth and depth in the material here that shames most of the stuff from the band's peers in the era. And, in some ways, The Long Ryders were rewriting the rules as they went along in attempting to make genre-hopping, country-tinged rock more accessible. Louder than The Blasters, more MOR than Los Lobos, and certainly more Byrds-influenced than X, The Long Ryders were, as this 4-CD set makes clear, the equal of those bands in many ways. If Two Fisted Tales remains a low point, it's not entirely a disaster. And despite some sense of the earlier State of Our Union trying too hard to take the band's sound to the mainstream, that album sounds a good deal more consistent than it did so many years ago. And, yeah, "Looking for Lewis and Clark" is an anthem that now sounds as striking and important as anything The Boss put out in those Reagan years.

This set from Cherry Red Records is the sort of thing that fans should truly appreciate. Containing nearly everything The Long Ryders put out, a bunch of rarities, and a live album, Final Wild Songs is the definitive Long Ryders release and perhaps offers a way that new fans can dive into the varied back-catalog of this fabulous American band.

Final Wild Songs by The Long Ryders is out now on Cherry Red Records.