Storytelling album filled with songs about Texan characters (and cars); lyrically inconsistent but still a good listen.
Seemingly ever since the advent of motoring, there have been songs that reference cars (or automobiles). Songs that mention cars directly, ‘Mercury Boogie‘ (KC Douglas, 1948), or indirectly, Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s ‘Every Woman I Know‘ (1955) and Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybelline‘ (1955). More recently, Lucinda Williams extolled the virtues of riding in a ‘Metal Firecracker‘. The collection of songs on “Border Radio” include more references to cars than you could shake a stick(shift) at; ‘Gold El Camino‘, ‘Revving Engines, River Street‘, ‘Saturday Night Comes Once a Week‘, ‘Border Radio‘ and ‘Turning Gold‘ all refer to cars or driving.
Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter John Baumann is a member of Texan ‘Supergroup’ The Panhandlers, in addition to his solo work. He describes “Border Radio” as a collection of “colors and vignettes from San Antonio and Hill Country down to the border”, continuing “I hope listening to this album is like going to the movies. This album is about experiencing something else, somewhere else.” Similarly, the late Nanci Griffith described songwriting like living a fantasy life; being “somebody else, someplace else for three and a half minutes, just like the listener”. Baumann’s aim appears to be to create credible characters whilst painting lyrical pictures describing places and terrains, something he mainly achieves, however lyrically some of the songs lean towards cliché.
As examples, on ‘Gold El Camino‘, Baumann sings “In my gold El Camino, Baby let’s take a ride” and “Ain’t got any room for a backseat driver“. On ‘South Texas Tradition‘, where listeners are introduced to a character embarking on a weekend hunting and fishing trip, we hear “I got 44 hours, I’ll sleep when I’m dead“. These lyrics tend to distract the listener, who drifts into thinking about where they might have heard the line before. In ‘Gold El Camino‘, the character is smitten with his car; the song trips along and has a strong chorus hook, while ‘Border Radio‘ tells a story of driving close to the USA/Mexico border, listening to Mexican AM radio stations drifting in and out of audible signal.
‘My Heart Belongs to You‘ includes a piano line reminiscent of that in Ryan Adams’ ‘La Cienega Just Smiled‘; it’s a slower song and lyrically stronger than some of the others, enhanced by co-writer Jaida Dreyer’s harmony vocals. Rocker ‘Saturday Night Comes Once a Week‘ namechecks Chevys and Fords and features some nice guitar fills and honky tonk piano; it’s a lot of fun. In contrast ‘The Night Before the Day of the Dead‘ is a slower, more serious affair. It’s the LP’s stand-out cut, with notable storytelling: “I’m casting half a shadow, On the cracked Saltillo tile, I can hear a Mariachi, From about a quarter mile” and “No está noche, That’s all she said, On the night before the Day of the Dead“. ‘Boy’s Town‘ brings the record to a more gentle conclusion; here cars are exchanged for (stolen) horses; “Saddle up, Stirrups down, Going to Boy’s Town“.
Overall, this is a good record. There’s much to commend in terms of melody and performance :Baumann’s voice is strong, like Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love) at times. Some of the storytelling is excellent and while listeners might expect consistently stronger lyrical content than is demonstrated in places, this does not spoil an otherwise enjoyable listen.