America is a large and wild place. Most rock bands, if they are any good at all, possess little capacity for capturing the true essence of the entire country. And for good reason: Turning a five-minute rock song into a melting pot for the disparate sounds of Nashville, New York City, Memphis, San Francisco, and Texas, to name but a few locales, is a massive undertaking. If you were born here, it's that much harder to have any perspective, which is probably why the Band (who were four-fifths Canadian) sound more all-American than anyone else in rock 'n' roll.
Oakley Hall With Whalebones and Red Jacket Mine. Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611, www.thecrocodile.com. $10 adv/$12 DOS. 9 p.m. Tues., Sept. 25.
Listen to a sample of Oakley Hall's "No Dreams."
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But every now and then, an act gets it right. And when this happens, it sounds like the soul of America singing. For instance, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival, both with roots in California, prove a point: You can sound wholly American no matter what part of the country you are from.
These days, Oakley Hall are producing some very all-American jams. Hailing from New York City, they are an anomaly in the annals of American music, one of the few bands that sounds both East and West Coast, a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll.
To date, Oakley Hall have produced four albums. Their latest, I'll Follow You, is their first for Merge (home to Arcade Fire), and contains churning rock songs spiked with fiddle, banjo, and scorching psychedelic fretwork. Here, the Hall mix folksy storytelling with spacey experimentation, resembling the Dead when they opened their early-'70s shows with acoustic sets before closing with the liquid trippiness of "Dark Star." And while the Hall's songs often surge headlong like a locomotive, the band remains tight and focused.
Fronted by the duo of Pat Sullivan and Rachel Cox, the Hall have a propensity for countering their ragged rockers (Sullivan's) with barroom tearjerkers (Cox's). The two often sing apart from each other, but on the occasion they harmonize, it's like a dry desert wind ("No Dreams" is a fine example of this).
Like the best American male-female vocal combos, Cox lends a songbird's airiness to Sullivan's droll delivery. Instrumentally, the Hall's chords are meaty and crunchy, and the rhythm section of Jesse Barnes (bass) and Greg Anderson (drums) maintains a metronomic steadiness akin to German prog and American dance music.
As for I'll Follow You, not only is "All the Way Down" the album's finest track, but it's definitely in the running for the Hall's greatest-hits album, if they ever release such a compilation. Cox handles the vocals, telling a rambling love story set all over the United States. "Made a plan for me and you/But you cut me loose/Now I'm loaded for two," she sings, and later, "Still dreaming of a me and you/With a new city groove/Work is hard but it's true/Who's gonna lay me down (all the way down)?"
Cox's sweet-but-steely vocals lend quite a bit of depth to an otherwise simple premise. Throughout the song, her character yearns to get fucked up and get laid no matter where she's at, but there is a sense that she still longs to be treated like a lady as she pleads in the song's final chorus, "Who's gonna show me around (all the way around)?" She played a similar role on an older Hall song, "Nite Lights, Dark Days," which is about a woman who can't help but love her old man, even though he's nothing but a reprobate. "Coffee's on the stove/But even that won't wake him up/He's stubborn and hard to break/But I love him all the same/He's my savior when the sun starts going down." It's a subject anyone familiar with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette can relate to, but set to a burning mountain-rock rhythm.
Ultimately, what's most disheartening is that so few of today's bands sound like Oakley Hall. It's good news for them, but what does it say about America when the Shins score big by sounding like Dexy's Midnight Runners and every other indie rocker seems to be in touch with his inner Brit? For such a short history, this country has developed a wealth of singularly American styles to draw from—Appalachian, blues, country. Come on, people. We declared our independence from England more than 200 years ago. Let's start sounding like it.