Len’s Lounge – Road Dog and More Train Songs

Len’s Lounge
Road Dog and More Train Songs

Sometimes I just hate how genre-predictable certain albums are. For instance, looking at the cover and title of Len’s Lounge’s Road Dog and More Train Songs, there was absolutely no doubt that what lay encoded on the circular piece of plastic within was an album of twangy, singer/songwriter country-rock. Any album that features a view of a highway and/or a flat open space (this album cover happens to feature both) will inevitably be an effort in alternative country, replete with songs about down and out small-towners mixed with liberal doses of pedal steel and twangy guitar. Heck, you could just about review it without even listening to it. But, given that these guys have been around since 1992, way before the late-90’s alt. country boom, and feature former Afghan Whig’s bassist John Curley on (duh) bass, it deserves better than that … I hope.
At first glance, the big harmonized choruses and electric slide guitar playing lend themselves to Eagles and Jayhawks comparisons, as the roads being traversed here are quite familiar for those who have been watching the diasporas of the country-rock movement. At times, with the Merle Haggard-ish delivery of lead vocalist/primary songwriter Jeff Roberson on tracks like “Cross Dressers and Acquaintances,” the band sounds similarly weathered as the burnt-out country warhorses in the refurbished Flying Burrito Brothers lineup that has been limping through the country for the 25+ years since Gram Parsons died. Not that it’s a bad thing to deliver songs in a certain listless steady hand, which Len’s Lounge has in spades, but it also means that their songwriter and musicianship don’t quite crackle with energy, youthfully naïve or otherwise. The first half of the album finds them generally building songs on twangy leads, pedal steel, fairly catchy choruses, and tales of small town desperation. Pretty much what would be expected.
Still, the songs aren’t totally without their quirks. While Roberson generally delivers and writes songs with a fairly indistinctive voice, there is something slightly off-center with his painfully simple descriptions, his non-rhyming verses, and his penchant for minor chord twists. Where “This Train” sounds about as old as their cover of Jimmie Rodger’s pre-WW2 “Waiting for a Train,” it almost seems to be belaboring the point to even write it. And where a cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” provides a moment of songwriting contrast, the spooky pedal steel and ominous moods evoked by the weary “Road Dog” almost finds Robison channeling a little of Townes Van Zandt (or Guy Clark for that matter) displacement. At these moments, Len’s Lounge seem to be on the verge of something vaguely interesting.
In short, I’m not sad that I spent the time to actually listen to Road Dog and More Train Songs, even if I could have done a fairly accurate review of it without putting it in my CD player. Sadly, for Len’s Lounge, these kind of alternative country albums are rather commonplace in 2002. They possess neither the imagination or creepiness of songwriters like Tom Waits or Will Oldham, they’re not as tuneful as the Jayhawks or Wilco, and they’re not as eclectically talented as the Mavericks. They are a very decent country-rock band that knows (and uses) all of the standard country-rock tricks. And while it’s hard to blame them for that, it’s not apparent who is going to get turned on to this variation of familiar themes given the alternatives.