"Do the ghosts in your bones rattle and moan?"
If you’ve grown up in the South, you’ll at some point have to wrestle with demons like empty religion, troubled history and fried foods. When I think of Southern rock or even Southern indie rock, I think of the whiskey-drenched, twang-infused ballads of bands like Lucero or Drive By Truckers. But East Tennessee’s Commander Keen is paving the way for a new breed of independent Southern rock.
Commander Keen have been building up a regional following over the past few years, touring the East Coast and Midwest extensively. I’ve described Commander Keen before as “Dinosaur Jr. if J Mascis ate biscuits and gravy for breakfast.” Keen masterfully combines Southern-esque riffs with the fuzzed-out indie rock of greats like Modest Mouse or Archers of Loaf. Songs like “Mt. Dew Capitol of the World,” “Carpet Bones” and “Rutherford” have just the right amount of twang alongside huge walls of fuzz and crashing cymbals.
Blake Marlow (vocals/guitar), Zach Ramsey (drums), and Matt Billings (bass) have not only made a phenomenal record, but they have also made a brutally honest record. It’s gritty. It’s real. And, it’s available on sweet-tea colored, 180-gram vinyl on the Fourth of July!
"The pills you’re selling aren’t working too good
I think they’re just making me weird
Do what we do to survive"
Lyricist Blake Marlow effortlessly weaves together images of life in small-town Tennessee alongside fever dreams and drug-induced paranoia. In “Mt. Dew Capital of the World,” Marlow shouts, “There’s menthol breath on his welfare check / There’s nicotine stains in his Chevrolet / If you mess with his baby gonna get fucked up / Got a dip spit head and it’s full of mud.” Marlow’s characters are ragged, bare and emotionally destitute. Yet, they are just the kind of boys you’d expect to find in rural East Tennessee: obsessed with their trucks and the cans of Copenhagan lining the backseats.
In the title track, Marlow sings, “Do the ghosts in your bones rattle and moan? / I don’t know / Do they bend do they break like telephone poles? / I don’t know / Do they shake with the jazz of amphetamine labs? I don’t know.” This short verse is jam-packed with meaning and symbols of the South. The telephone poles that line the interstates and highways. The ghosts that haunt Civil War battlefields. The backwoods laboratories and campfire distilleries. Through these short lines, Marlow shows his affection for the scenery of his home state.
The backbone of this record is Marlow’s lyrics. While the music is full of hooks, Marlow’s gritty descriptions of coming of age in the South provide an emotional anchor to the record. And it’s because of these lyrics that you’ll find yourself returning to this record over and over.
"I played in this punk band once and we turned our amps up real loud
And we stacked them as high as they would go"
If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Commander Keen live, then you know they are something special. Massive, loud and tight, their distorted riffs fill up any room they play. Their recordings, while still good, have never been able to capture their live sound. But, "Dying In The South" marks a departure from the lo-fi, homemade charm and a beeline for huge, thick walls of sound.
In a recent interview on House Show, a series of performances filmed live in an East Nashville basement, Marlow said, “You need big amps and big cabinets if you want your songs to sound big.” And this is exactly how they approached recording with Mikey Allred at Dark Arts Studio. And while the record sounds big and polished, it is far from pristine. When you’re listening to the record, you can almost smell the sweat and beer from countless house shows. You can taste the cigarette smoke. You can see the beads of sweat falling from the foreheads of Marlow, Ramsey and Billings.
"Dying in the South" sounds like Commander Keen as God intended. Finally, they have found the production that fits their huge live sound. Catch Commander Keen on tour in early August and pre-order the new record here (out on July 4, 2018).