The Bad Livers debuted at the fringes of the bluegrass scene and took their sideways Appalachian twang just about as far as they could, filling roughly the same space in the 1990's alt-countrysphere as the Gourds. Main man Danny Barnes made a go of it as a solo artist, though more decidedly in the alt-country mode. Here's a quick look at their work...
Bad Livers "Delusions Of Banjer" (Quarterstick, 1992)
(Produced by Paul Leary)
This early album isn't really all that "alt-y," but it is quite impressive. A sparse, somewhat haunting set with a convincing old-timey vibe. Later they got all bouncy and a bit goofy, but here the Livers play things pretty straight, and the results are quite nice. Worth checking out!
Bad Livers "Horses In The Mines" (Quarterstick, 1994)
This disc opens with a breakneck breakdown, then settles into a slower, more deliberate mode, with plenty of songs that are clearly About Something. Although what, exactly, I'm not sure, as I couldn't muster myself to fix my attention on the lyrics... I couldn't get past the presentation, which seemed a bit too lofty and self-important, perhaps a bit too influenced by the whole alt.country scene. Later, this band settled into a more traditional, overtly "bluegrass" style, and I think the change did them good. I hate to sound so stuffy, but there you have it: there's something about this album which made it seem flat and unappealling, and I think it stems from the pretentiousness of the presentation.
Bad Livers "Dust On The Bible" (Quarterstick, 1994)
These are actually the earliest Bad Livers recordings, kitchen tape sessions from 1991... Sadly, these too-cool readings of many great old gospel tunes are pretty disappointing; what's so invigorating about bluegrass gospel music is the heartfelt passion and searching, earnest emotion of the singers... By contrast, the Livers lazily lope their way through through classics such as "I Saw The Light," "Working On A Building," "Gathering Flowers" and "I'm Using My Bible For A Roadmap" and seem to expect to score points just for showing up and knowing all the words to the songs... I suppose these renditions could be hailed as radically new reinterpretations of these peppy old standards, but I'm mostly struck by how lackadaisical and tongue-in-cheek they seem... (To be honest, they kind of sound like the Grateful Dead, except that the Dead connect with this sort of material in a more sincere fashion...) I guess I'm a stickler for tradition, but if ya don't really mean it, why sing it? I'll take some old Carl Story or Bill Monroe tunes over this stuff anyday.
Bad Livers "Hogs On The Highway" (Sugar Hill, 1997)
Bad Livers "Industry And Thrift" (Sugar Hill, 1998)
The Bad Livers "Blood & Mood" (Sugar Hill, 2000)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
On a later album, BL's main man Danny Barnes wrote a song called "Bluegrass Suicide," and this hard rock-tinged outing may well be what he was referring to... With monster bass lines straight out of the classic Black Sabbath playbook, trip-hoppy sampling, cuss words and pointedly aimless, noodly pickin' and plunkin' on many songs, this disc seems tailormade to burn as many bridges as possible in the bluegrass world... Guess he was just bored, or something. Anyway, interpreting this as Barnes flipping the bird at the truegrass crowd is probably not that far off the mark... Lord only knows what producer Lloyd Maines made of it all...! Anyway, a few songs -- "Little Bitty Town," "Death Trip" -- are okay, but on the whole this isn't an album I could imagine coming back to that often... Weird career move.
The Bad Livers "The Ridgetop Sessions" (Lumpydisc, 2000)
Danny Barnes & Pete Krebs "Duet For Clarinet And Goat" (Cavity Search, 2001)
Danny Barnes & Thee Old Codgers "Things I Done Wrone" (Terminus, 2001)
Danny Barnes "Minor Dings" (Cavity Search, 2003)
Danny Barnes "Dirt On The Angel" (Terminus, 2003)
The Bad Livers' resident bluegrass bad boy Danny Barnes cuts loose on a genre-defiant, rambling, grime-flecked mix of bluegrass, old-timey and acoustic-blues-flavored alt.country, reminiscent in spirit to them unruly old Cheap Suit Seranaders albums. Barnes seems to have an axe to grind here -- on the opening track, "Life In The Country," he slags the Nashville scene with an offhand slap: "New country music ain't worth a dime/and the radio plays it alla the time..." while on "Bluegrass Today," he admits the difficulties of thumbing one's nose at showbiz conventions (even inside of an artistic refuge such as the bluegrass scene...) It took a while for this disc to grow on me -- even with musical assist by Darol Anger, Bill Frisell and others, the jagged, chaotic Dock Boggs-ish vibe makes it a little hard to latch onto -- but after a while I came to consider it a minor masterpiece, in that loosey-goosey, iconoclastic ne'er-do-well style pioneered by John Hartford, back in the goodle days. If you're a Livers fan, or just looking for an album that steps out of the norm (while still maintaining a high level of musicianship), then this disc is definitely worth checking out.
Danny Barnes "Get Myself Together" (Terminus, 2005)
(Produced by Danny Barnes)
His best album to date, with the same ascerbic, ironic, modern sense of humor and command of multiple musical idioms, but with practically none of the dips into overt musical pandering or self-parody. Barnes seems to have much greater faith in his music here: he doesn't have to turn it into a joke to make it work. Instead, he lets the humor speak for itself and doesn't dabble in any of the twangcore/insurgent mannerisms and overstatements that were a drag on earlier albums. He's still in our faces, playing bluegrass-y songs that ask, "who gives a rat's ass?" as the chorus, but he does so with a calmness and assurance that doesn't have the underlying sense of desperation or I-know-it's-not-real-art apologetics of the rest of the alt-country genre. Barnes's self-assurance can read as cockiness, but it's borne out by the strong musical foundation, which makes this record as consistently listenable as it is clever. Definitely worth checking out.
Danny Barnes "... And His Oft Mended Raiment" (2006)
Danny Barnes "Pizza Box" (ATO, 2009)
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