Brent Amaker and the Rodeo “Philaphobia”

Independent, 2024

Performance art, conceptual weirdness or the (slight) return of country-punk?

Philophobia is defined as a fear of love. ‘Philaphobia’ is Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s first proper album in 10 years and their 5th in approaching 20 years of making music. If we take Amaker’s explanation then ‘Philaphobia’ derives from the female root of the Greek ‘philo’ and he uses it to establish the theme of the LP; a “fear of … feminine love”. In making this play on Greek vocabulary Amaker does two things: he establishes the artistic and intellectual bona-fides that, it is suggested, underpin his material. And secondly he shapes a perspective of this as his divorce record after the breakdown of his second marriage left him with intense feelings of heartbreak, sadness and (for balance perhaps) freedom.

The record is saturated by the timeless country trope of focussing misery into heart-worn laments with a side of off-kilter humour. Then presenting these in a package of rollicking, hard-charging cow-punk weirdness. Facing one’s feelings head on and giving them loud and belligerent short shrift has always been a conceit of the more alt’ end of the alt’ spectrum. Jon Wayne, The Legendary Shack Shakers or South Filthy perhaps. Whilst these (and plenty other) compatriots have good old country-bluegrass-blues antecedents, Amaker’s roots spread wider into yet more performative and idiosyncratic ground.

The driving force behind Amaker’s music comes more from his love for art-rock a la Devo or The Residents. Proclaiming that he and his Rodeo are playing ‘cowboy music’ not Country music, or more pertinently creating “Western Performance Art”. Without his commentary though, or the John Waters-esque pencil moustache, the obligatory black western wear outfits for all band members and the (very) occasional lyrical grift or musical tic, we would be hard pushed to notice much of this art school influence. Just in case we’ve not caught on previously or even by halfway through ‘Philophobia’, the band step into a clunky extended instrumental intro’, with extraneous noises sounding like someone cleaning up the bar at the end of the night. As the intro goes on and the urgency steps up we realise that what we are getting is a cover of Devo’s ‘Gut Feeling’. The art-rock Akronites may be one of Amaker’s first and greatest loves but this unsteady twanged up homage offers none of the urgency or swelling anticipation of the original.

In particular Amaker is in thrall to what he calls Devo’s ‘conceptual unity’, which manifests in a desire for consistency of message and presentation (hence the band uniforms). And herein lies possibly the main drawback of the record. When your shtick is making crazy performance art from 30 years of rock music there is plenty to go at, when you are working, as Amaker and the Rodeo are, with a smaller sonic palette, essentially rockabilly, trad’ country and some bluegrass, then your options are significantly fewer and there is a danger that you can end up repeating yourself, sounding just a tad samey. When he launches into the opening lines of Mothersbaugh’s opus “Something about the way you taste, Makes me wanna clear my throat, There’s a message to your movements, That really gets my goat” Amaker is bang on point with the lyrical concerns of the album but also ends up signposting the more prosaic and possibly less affecting nature of his own writing. Lyrically he does offer something that is more interesting and a little more obtuse than the tropes he works with but nothing that quite lives up to the performance art claims that accompany his oeuvre.

Take My Heart” is essentially a raw break-up song sent to his ex-wife. It drips hurtful life experience, which is only slightly eased by some lovely Spanish-sounding guitar figures. There’s a chugging Luther Perkins boogie that underpins the song and The Rodeo ‘ye-haw’ all around the place to show that he may be demoralised but is certainly not crushed. There is also a commendably grisly video to go with the song that adds the requisite level of black humour. Elsewhere the noisier elements holler forth in “Take it by the Horns” emphasises the cow-punk, raging with metallic surf guitar work and the trademark blues-a-billy beat. Then “Climb Aboard” offers a more theatrical ambiance through nods Morricone soundtracks and ‘Crawdad Creek’ even suggests what sounds like Grandaddy’s synth weirding up a ditty about trucks, fishing, swimming and lovin’.

Throughout ‘Philaphobia’ Amaker walks a tightrope of self-parody and stylized art rock, like some high concept joke reimagining Country Dick Montana as a performance artist refugee from Terry Allan’s ‘Truckload of Art’. He clearly states that this is his oeuvre so we are aren’t surprised. Whilst his sneeringly ominous baritone hints at a little of the oddness he craves, he plays it so straight with the lyrical concerns of the record and the sonic palette that it is difficult to see it as anything other than a perfectly serviceable cow-punk-a-billy infused country break up record.


About Guy Lincoln 73 Articles
Americana, New Country, Alt-country, No Depression, Twangcore, Cow-punk, Neo-traditionalists, Countrypolitan... whatever.
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