I may have mentioned that I love a challenge, but here’s one that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never reviewed a triple album (bought a few in the vinyl era). Before The Clash released ‘Sandinista!’, the triple album was mainly a prog phenomenon with bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer using the format for extended instrumental workouts. The Clash brought it all back to basics with a classic six songs per side over six sides. Jeb Barry’s Pawn Shop Saints have taken the Clash’s value for money concept even further with fifteen tracks per album – the maths is easy, it’s forty-five songs. Sensibly enough, it’s a digital-only release to download or stream.

The project started just after 2023’s ‘Weeds’ album was completed and pulls together songs that were written over a period of twenty years or so. ’45 American Lies’ is a bit of a tidy-up operation; you have a stack of forty-five songs that you’ve gathered over the years that didn’t quite fit in on any previous albums but you think they have value so why not record them and get them all out there at the same time. The recording process was all about getting the songs recorded with a maximum of speed and a minimum of studio trickery. There’s a lot of material here and the common factors are Jeb Barry’s classic songwriting and his high lonesome voice. He’s not expecting everyone to like every song on the album (do you know anyone who likes every song on ‘Sandinista!’?), but he’s quite happy if you dip in and find a couple that you like from the smorgasbord on offer.

For what it’s worth, my favourites after a couple of listens (and that could easily change after another listen)  are ‘Liverpool’, a story of everyday male sexual jealousy, ‘Cottonwood’ and ‘Repo Man’ on the familiar Jeb Barry theme of the destruction of rural communities and ‘Heading to Parchman’, the story of a doomed relationship that culminates in twenty to life in Mississippi State Penitentiary, which has a rich history in popular song, including Hannah Aldridge’s 2014 classic, ‘Parchman’.

It’s a bit of a long shift listening to the whole piece, but if you like quality Americana, then you’ll find something for you in this collection.

’45 American Lies’ is out now on Dollyrocker Records.

Here’s an acoustic video of ‘Cottonwood’:

Paddy McAloon described the working title of his 1990 Prefab Sprout masterpiece ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ as ‘Death and Elvis’. Jeb Barry could have had a working title of ‘Death and Death’ for his third pandemic album ‘Weeds’. Jeb’s inclination is naturally towards the melancholic and the album centres around the impact of COVID and the impact of the death of John Prine in particular, so don’t expect too many laughs. The songs are beautifully constructed miniatures with sparse arrangements built around acoustic guitar and bass with additional colour from occasional accordion, banjo, harmonica and fiddle solos and fills. The production, co-helmed with long-time collaborator Josh Pisano has a very organic live folk feel, keeping Jeb’s vocal front and centre and sometimes doubled up to reinforce its plaintive, keening quality. Across the album, Jeb’s voice emphasises and accentuates the painful subjects of the songs.

The opening song on ‘Weeds’ is almost cheerful in that it’s only about a break-up rather than a death. It’s the album’s obligatory Big Star-ish song and comes complete with an accordion solo; from there on, things get a bit darker, apart from the slide guitar-punctuated title song which talks about the metaphorical weeds we trip over before the song turns to positivity with angels watching over us.

Most of Jeb Barry’s songs are Carver-style vignettes, picking up on small events in people’s everyday lives. The death of ‘Miss June’ echoes the lonely death of the more famous ‘Eleanor Rigby’, while ‘Preacher’ and ‘All Girls Break Hearts’ are fairly straightforward stories of broken romances. The really punchy songs for me on ‘Weeds’ are the ones where personal stories are intertwined with social or political themes.

‘The COVID Unit’ combines the idea of losing people to the virus with the selfishness or stupidity of people refusing to wear masks over a mid-tempo country rock arrangement while ‘Generation Lockdown uses a similar styling to combine themes of lockdown and its impacts with the other American virus of school shootings, which is particularly relevant as Jeb’s day job is teaching high school. There’s a gentle power in every song on the album; ‘The War’ is an exploration of PTSD, ‘James’ deals with coping with the untimely death of an old friend, while ‘Twine’, a song about barely holding things together, is a tribute to John Prine.

Jeb Barry describes ‘Seeds’ as his folk album. The arrangements are mainly traditional string band stylings and there are elements of protest in the songs as well. There are many fascinating stories, all sung in Jeb’s laconic, fragile high tenor with arrangements that rely on feel and skill rather than power and clever studio techniques. It’s organic without descending into lo-fi territory. Every song fits in neatly, even the singalong (shoutalong?) simplicity of ‘Baby Got Drunk’. There are stories and messages aplenty and you can’t beat an album that begins with a song that’s a tribute to Alex Chilton.

‘Weeds’ is released in the UK on Dollyrocker Records (DR20231) on Friday July 21st.

We’ve reviewed three Pawn Shop Saints albums here on Music Riot and they’ve all been great pieces of work, particularly 2020’s ‘Ride My Galaxy’. When we asked for contributions for this year’s tenth anniversary of the High Fives feature, Jeb Barry was one of the first to submit a contribution covering, in true High Fives tradition, a wide range of his special 2022 moments and experiences. Over to Jeb:

So here are my five favorite things of the past year or so…

Home recording:

Josh Pisano in The Attic Studio
Mike O’Neill in The Attic Studio

 I’m lucky enough to have my own small recording studio where my band, The Pawn Shop Saints, record, mix and master all of our releases. It’s small, but it works for our style of music…laid back acoustic Americana. It’s been an important part of the creative process to simply walk up a flight of stairs and work on music….and it doesn’t cost us a penny. This is important since I fund everything myself and we are 100% indie…we do it all on our own. It may be a little low tech for some, but we are trying to create our own sound our own way. Sometimes it works..other times..well, not so much..but it sure is fun.

Before I dropped the ‘Jeb Barry and…’

The European Americana Scene:

I live in the Berkshires in the state of Massachusetts…not a huge original music scene, but that’s ok since, from the start, we’ve focused on promoting ourselves across the Atlantic instead of at home. Europe seems to have a more focused and concentrated Americana scene, and our last three albums have all charted there, thanks to great support from our promoter, djs, critics, writers, bloggers, etc…It’s still pretty cool to see all the airplay and reviews that we get with every release, which makes all the work worthwhile.

Except for my publisher and a handful of others in Nashville, we are pretty much unknown…even in our own town. It’s simply too hard to compete with groups with money behind them and staff to do the hard work of promotion, publicity, booking, distribution,  and everything else that goes with doing original music.  We play live only a couple of times a year locally since we are not in the local music loop and are picky where we play. My dream is to someday get to play some shows in Europe, even if it’s a solo show.

Solid Sound 2013 – J Barry

The Return of Live Music:

Solid Sound, Wilco’s three day festival that occurs at the Mass Moca Museum complex, finally returned this past spring. Since it is held five miles from me, I have gone to every one of them in the past ten years. To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable being in such large crowds with Covid still a factor, but since it was outside it made it a little easier to be in a crowd of 8,000. This festival, along with the Freshgrass Roots festival held every September (I have played six of them) are three days of bands, food, art, and performances. It’s great to see old favorites again and new groups for the first time. It’s a great scene…not too big like some festivals.

Unfortunately some of the music clubs I used to go to pre-Covid have closed or drastically cut their schedules.

The Ongoing vinyl resurgence

Yeah, I’ve been collecting vinyl records for about 12 years. The resurgence in interest is great, but it has had some negative impacts on my hobby. For one, I can’t simply go to the local thrifts or estate sales and find tons of records like I used to do. There is so much more competition, but that’s ok…I just have to try a little harder. The resurgence has also impacted my bands releases, as I planned to press our last two releases on vinyl, just for the hell of it, but due to everyone pressing their releases, the cost and wait time was too much for us, so we’re sticking to CDs and digital.

Calton Guitar Cases:

Eight years ago I finally splurged on an upper level acoustic guitar; a Martin HD-28 with the 1935 sunburst color scheme. Since then, I have always been nervous to fly with that guitar, given how airlines can mistreat musical instruments. So I finally splurged on my dream guitar case (yes, there is such a thing LOL) …a Calton case, handmade in Austin, Texas. This gives me a little more peace of mind when I fly the next time and can take my main guitar, instead of my second guitar (A Martin 000-15). Hopefully this will be next summer when I try to get back overseas. Oh yeah, I got a blue one since it’s easier to find at the airport…or if someone walks off with it.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ looks like it will be one of three Pawn Shop Saints/Jeb Barry albums conceived in the pandemic to be released in the near future. The thing that unifies this album and will probably unify the remaining two albums is Jeb Barry’s voice. The songs range from the nostalgic West Coast country/rock of ‘Chevy Nova’ to the unrelenting gloom of ‘Ain’t No Mama Here’, but the cracked emotion of the voice that combines the vulnerability of Jackson Browne with the raw power of Greg Dulli is a constant.

There are the trademark Pawn Shop Saints acoustic staples aplenty on the album, but there are also a few elements of pop and rock pushing through the mix. There’s an opening studio chat on ‘Exits’ about getting the song down “mistakes and all” that sets the tone for the album. It’s much more about capturing the feel of the songs, rather than perfect performances. There’s no shortage of nods in the direction of iconic pop and rock figures and songs either. The I-VI chords at the start of ‘diane’ have a hint of Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid’, while ‘Jenny Why’ has a hint of Danny Whitten’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ and an arrangement that’s reminiscent of The Band. The paranoid menace of ‘Wicked’ is emphasised by a band sound that could be Crazy Horse at its most rough and ready. You get the picture; you can pick out the influences, while it’s all held together by great songwriting and Jeb Barry’s voice.

The album opens with a song that isn’t in typical Pawn Shop Saints territory; ‘Chevy Nova’ is unashamed seventies nostalgia. It’s a cars, girls, booze and drugs song, but in an innocent and naïve way. The closing song is firmly back in Pawn Shop Saints lyrical territory with a story of the pain caused by a broken relationship, but with a grungier sound that’s emphasised by a completely live studio recording.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is an intriguing blend of the hard-edged dirt-poor Americana typified by the floods, crop failures and fever deaths of ’Ain’t No Mama Here’ and some new elements pop, punk, psychedelia and even nostalgia. It’s a good mix and creates a fascinating album.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is out now Dollyrocker Records (DR20221). Here’s the video for ‘Exits’: