Their name sort of gives them away. Once you realize the Lomax have named themselves after the legendary John and Alan Lomax, who brought many of us what we know about Southern traditional American music, you can quickly guess what they might sound like: a little bit cowboy, a bit folksy, a tad bluesy (but some other stuff I'll get to later). John Lomax gave us Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, which brought songs like "Home on the Range" to the public consciousness. With son Alan he later collected a huge archive of field recordings that, most famously, brought Lead Belly (who came back into the 1990s pop consciousness thanks to Nirvana's cover of his "In the Pines" on their Unplugged disc) out of a prison and into fashionable 1930s parlors.
RACING ISN'T THEIR THING: The Lomax are more laid back.
These guys legitimized country music, American music, before it was co-opted and ruined (did you hear that garbage on Grammys this weekend? Well, of course not. Only losers actually watch the Grammys). The cowboy poets still haven't quite gotten their due, but somehow Woody Guthrie seems a little more right every day, doesn't he? And I think it's interesting that the Lomax chose to categorize themselves as "Country" on iTunes. Because they're not really country. Except when they are.
Really, to judge by their debut full-length, The Lomax Album, they're a pop band — draped in twangy electric guitars and, once, a banjo, sure, but a pop band nonetheless.
This is partly because principal singer and songwriter Andy Ellis just doesn't have a bit of Southern drawl in him. If anything, his voice is built for ironic indie rock, but also reminds of British Invasion pop-rock with his clean and generally tenor delivery. He doesn't growl or swagger so much as bop and sometimes lounge, and this lends a recurring contrast to the Lomax's songs that makes their sound memorable and unique. It's a nod to dueling traditions, both of them uniquely American, even if they've been stolen and coerced from Africa and the British Isles.
I mean, what country singer would reference "what Johnny Marr's guitar did on records with Morrissey"? What country singer would lead a song with, "You can call me Ishmael"? For whatever reason, I find this kind of genre-bending pretty interesting. Rather than make a genre album — a Texas swing disc, or a rockabilly vamp — the Lomax have made a traditional sound their own, tugging it not quite into the current day, but at least a few years later than its hey-day.
Because, of course, Johnny Marr hasn't played with Morrissey for more than 20 years, and do any kids nowadays spend all day "listening to the radio, and leafing through the latest Rolling Stone"? Does anyone "fine-tune the FM dial"? Maybe they do in Lewiston or Louisville, places inhabited by the Lomax's timeless characters, who are desperate to escape their hometowns and desperate to find a home at the same time.
One of my favorite tunes here is "I Said Goodbye," an old-timey honky-tonk tune like they've been playing on Friday Night Lights (do you watch that show? DVR it, if only for the Texas swing bands they've been featuring lately). You can smell the sawdust on the floor, the stale beer on the bar-top. Brian Patrick and Dave Ragsdale's guitars buffet a great acoustic lead from Ellis. But then there are the lyrics: "My self respect won't be diminished;" "My confidence will not be shattered."
Dude. Cowboys don't think about self-respect and confidence. They punch people in the face and throw back shots and pull down the brims of their hats.
The Lomax do throw some punches, though. Drummer Dave Fields leads them often through staccato jabs, as at the open of the sweet "Charming Margaret" or the almost cow-punk "Moby Jane." And Fields teams with Chris White's bass to build a driving open to the album's closer, and one of two songs penned by Ragsdale, "She Stares at Art." In fact, there are times, when the guitars come churning in, that you can imagine huge Pete Townsend windmills flying from Patrick and Ragsdale's right arms.
The Lomax are a little too reserved for that, though. The songs have a measured feel. While "You Ain't Foolin'" might sound like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon, with vocals full of echoes and a throaty growl in the guitars, there's a feeling that the band isn't quite at full throttle. That, of course, leaves the opportunity for them to rock out, live.
Somebody ought to make a field recording.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
THE LOMAX + KING MEMPHIS | Empire Dine and Dance | Feb 20