Norman country-rockers can't walk the bill on track from forthcoming studio debut Étouffée, Brute?
Drinkin’, druggin’, and gamblin’ used to be the thing of seedy outsiders, the muse of the disreputable. It made music sound dangerous and edgy. The Contraband, though, feels like comfort food. As its name implies, the group has a soft spot for recreational substances and activities of various sorts, and it uses the old songwriting standby of referring to “mama” as a purer counterpoint. There needn’t be one, per se, especially in a town where weed is not only legal but also generally accepted in the mainstream. In terms of how it surveys its vices, The Contraband is less “Carry on Wayward Son” and more “The Boys Are Back in Town”.
Tipping a hat to its soothin’ southern stylings, the title of the band’s first proper studio album starts with a cajun dish and spins it into a Shakespearean pun. While there may be some deeper meaning behind Étouffée, Brute? involving bro code betrayal and culinary peace offerings, it mostly plays as a surface-level jest. In Ali Harter‘s shadowy, masculine cover art, the absurdity is played straight to amplify it. It’s perfectly silly.
The new nine-track project releases this Monday, May 23rd, but while it’s the group’s in-studio debut, it is technically a sophomore release following 2019’s Greetings from Norman, a live album recorded at Norman’s oldest bar, the Bluebonnet. That the two records share a few songs highlight the strengths of each approach. “3rd and Walsh”, for example, benefits from in-the-moment jam band solos on stage, but crisp mixing and overdubbed arrangements make the studio version the superior take.
With the release of Étouffée, Brute? around the corner complete with spicy dashes of funk, blues, and horn-bellowing soul, an appetizer is in order. Streaming today in this Make Oklahoma Weirder exclusive premiere, you can listen to “Man from Memphis”, a debtor’s tale from the new LP.
Opening with mere percussion–the sizzle of shaker, the smoke of cymbal, and the amble of kick and rim–“Man from Memphis” soon swells in guitar, keys, and bass. Featuring Taylor Crittenden, Michael Rose, James Wyrick, and Stephen Baker in the lineup, The Contraband sounds as full as ever. Once the lyrics enter, guitar riffage carries from verse to chorus and back again as lead singer-songwriter Tanner Miller recounts an ill-fated gambling play, foreseeing little escape from his debts to the titular character. In one breath, he hopes for a wind to fill his figurative sails to get him the heck out of Dodge, but in another, he senses the ship is already ablaze and sinking.
Despite the dire circumstances, the music doesn’t seem too bothered by them. Keeping a steady tempo, “Man from Memphis” is contemplative at most, lingering on the slurred recurring line “What am I s’posed do?” like it’s a rhetorical question, like the only appropriate answer to its low-key howl is “It really do be like that sometimes.” Spoilers: the song never finds a resolution, perhaps in part because it doesn’t try to hunt one down. It’s a prolonged moment of standstill uncertainty.
While it may not be as weird as “Get Stoned and Go Garden”, which comes later in the album, it’s odd enough to tell a story without much of a story arc. That isn’t to say that it flatlines or even plateaus. It just doesn’t seem all too interested in drama. That echoes much of what The Contraband is about, or more specifically what Tanner Miller is about.
As a current co-owner of Bluebonnet Bar, a downtown Norman tradition of over 80 years, he has worked on the ground level to serve drinks, run sound, and play shows with immense modesty for over a half-decade. It’s part of a greater effort to keep a special place alive for folks to kick back, relax, and let the world go for a bit. In the hearty arms of each other’s company, some quality tunes, and some drink for good times’ sake, the place is a dependable, world-weary comfort. With The Contraband’s recordings, a little Bluebonnet is available to take home in a doggie bag, and this time, étouffée is on the menu.
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.