Stitching together every musical square of red, white, and blue fabric conceivable -- hymns, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, barbershop, torch songs, Dylan, show tunes, FM rock -- the Barkers are still not retro in the slightest. They're not postmodern, either. Postmodern implies elements with no pertinent connection fused arbitrarily, which couldn't be further from the truth for this local quartet. Everything about the Barkers and the music they make is organic; rarely do they come across as forced, precious, or artificial. Beyond that, you're on your own. Consider "The History of the Golden Delicious," a recent addition to their catalog. From humble beginnings as an easy Gene Autry canter, a Blues Explosion-style interjection from singer/guitarist Will Walden is the signal for a hard left into a caterwauling meltdown of grating electric guitar with drummer Steve van Balgooyen doing his best John Bonham. Then, just as suddenly, it's back to the open range. Not the Who, the Dead, or the Cure, yet somehow approaching all three, it's the one thing few people seem equipped to deal with or even recognize anymore -- something different.
Other aspects of the Barkers' appeal are easier to divine -- Alice Spencer's voice, for one. Capable of carrying an entire symphony, her voice instead lights on Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" and the band's own "October Trains" with stirring, pitch-perfect poignancy. At the climax of "New Waltz," she holds the word "wine" for what seems an eternity, going chanteuse for "Aphrodite" with Walden's fluid cabaret jazz further embellishing the dusky belle du jour atmosphere. Husband and wife since the band started, Walden and Spencer's frequent harmonies have that joined-at-the-lip matrimonial bond that stretches from before Sonny & Cher to the Handsome Family.
"It's cool to go to a restaurant and start talking about music," says Walden. "We're having the debate, Badfinger or Big Star, and you look over and it's your wife."
Then there's the band, gifted with a chameleon-like knack for appropriating a slew of styles. "Farmer's Song," complete with xylophone solo and Protestant harmonies, could have come straight from a Grange revival in 1874. "Burn Your Piano" rides a whistle-stop harmonica lick down track No. 9, while some of their newer songs beat out Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard for pure fist-pumping melodic riffage. Spencer's formidable instrumental skills bear mentioning as well, whether the percolating pump organ of "Burn Your Piano," the simmering silent-movie strains of "Brother," or the forlorn gypsy accordion of "Aphrodite." The Wurlitzer-cushioned funk of "Mary" is smoothly bumpalicious enough to give Roy Ayers or Jimmy Smith palpitations.
As one of their psychedelic calliope compositions, 12 of which are available on the Barkers' 1999 self-released debut Burn Your Piano, floats down the pike, it's impossible not to hear the call of the Nile-wide Mississippi, or visualize the band's connection to the home of current NFL champion St. Louis Rams. Walden and Spencer attended college in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, also Balgooyen's native soil. Somewhere, W.C. Handy is smiling. The noirish yet sunny "Travelin' Song" is acerbic in the jovial nature of Randy Newman, whom Walden counts as an inspiration. In fact, "Travelin' Song" is so footloose and fancy-free, it makes you wonder: Are they kidding with that "we gotta get out of Texas before it's too late" line or what?
It's hard to imagine anywhere else on American soil where the Barkers' pledge to "hoe me a row of barstools" could have taken root so quickly and securely. The band hit its stride at their Tuesday-night residency at the Continental Club last spring, eventually pulling in respectable crowds even by post-Toni Price "hippie hour" standards. Having recently undergone the locally unavoidable bass-player switch, installing punk-rock-trained Weldon Stutes for vacated stand-up specialist Bill Gribble, the Barkers are still very much a work in progress.
"I think that was a problem we were having in the beginning, that we wanted to have every show be like the White Album," says Walden. "I think that even for us, there was a sort of identity crisis, but we still felt that we had a shot at creating a unique sound."
Considering 1999 closed with Austin bereft of the Electric Lounge, Doug Sahm, and early Barkers sponsors the Meat Purveyors, such a brazenly adventurous spirit was welcome anywhere. In a town grasping for bright spots like Oprah trying to buy literary credibility, the Barkers offered more than enough reason to hit the bars. Having a weekly South Congress showcase broadened their audience pool even more.
"Bruce Robison saw us at the Continental Club, and he was really into it," says Balgooyen. "Charlie Sexton saw us there as well. Two of the guys from Godzilla Motor Company are our sound men."
Such an endorsement from Austin's kings of krunch would certainly bring a smile to the face of the girl in "Baytown," who says "I feel like a rocker when you put that 'Sweet Leaf' tape on." Out of the potentially limitless possibilities, the Barkers prefer to view themselves as a plain ol' rock band. To be sure, it's an especially literate brand of rock, tossing in references to Botticelli and Copernicus with the yellow Monte Carlos and October trains. Though they both hail from the banks of Big Muddy, it's not very often that Mark Twain and Big Star intersect. Astute and evocative, the Barkers' lyrics are full of endearing word play that skirts the dual rock pitfalls of cliche and non sequitur. "Baytown," for instance, is an exquisitely rendered portrait of limited adolescent opportunities in a place where "the guy behind the counter, he eats his own young."
Of course Austin has also been known to eat its young, but the Barkers should be safe. They've stepped in to fill a niche that wasn't even there, subsequently finding welcome receptions everywhere from Hole in the Wall and the Red Eyed Fly to the Cactus Cafe and Flipnotics. They've booked shows with Lil' Cap'n Travis, Earthpig, the Damnations, Beaver Nelson, Hammel on Trial, and the Orange Mothers, to name a few. Chris "Frenchie" Smith of Sixteen Deluxe has become quite a fan, both of the band and its Mellotron. Already recording diligently at 16D's Bubble Studios, a recent three-song demo finds them headed further toward Grifterland.
"In the past, people have questioned whether we were a rock band," Balgooyen says. "This stuff is definitely moving that direction."
They'd be happy to put out another album and share with everyone this new emphasis on "groove," but haven't quite figured out how to pay for it.
"I've unfortunately been on a label before and had a really bad experience," says Spencer. "My goal would be just to have somebody who understands what we're trying to do, who doesn't have any unrealistic expectations, but wants to give us some money so we could make some records. Ideally, sure, I would love to be able to buy my mom a condo in Miami, but realistically, I'd just like to be able to make a living making records instead of scrubbing toilets."
"Bingo," the soft-spoken Stutes chimes in.
"I think we need to get a CD to Robbie Robertson, who's the new A&R guy at Dreamworks," opines Balgooyen. "I think he might dig the Barkers."
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.