Lasers Lasers Birmingham
What constitutes a country music album in 2019? How about twenty, or forty years ago? Would the answer be the same? In 1979, the CMA pegged Kenny Roger’s album The Gambler as album of the year, while the award for single of the year went to the Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Go back another ten years to when we last set foot on the moon and Nixon was just in the White House, and those same CMA awards went to Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin album and his single A Boy Named Sue. The CMA award for female vocalist of the year in ’69 and ’79 were Tammy Wynette and Crystal Gayle respectively. No one is going to argue with you about the country credentials of Tammy Wynette or Johnny Cash, but what about the countrypolitan pop stylings of Crystal Gayle or Kenny Rogers? Times, tastes and styles change, in country music as much as anywhere else, thankfully.
LA-based Alex Owen is not exactly a country singer, in the way that Gram Parsons was not really a country singer, at least not like George Jones or Ernest Tubb were country singers. That doesn’t mean that his new Lasers Lasers Birmingham album, Warning, is not a country album, in the way that Grievous Angel was, without doubt. There’s steel, fiddle and tele-twang aplenty backing up Owen’s 21st century country rock styling, stoned waltzes and honky tonk laments, ticking the boxes on instrumentation and time signatures. Lyrically, these songs lean towards the cosmic end of the country rock spectrum, with a subtle world-weariness bordering on acceptance of the half empty glass that is life today. As Owen puts it, nobody’s asking for perfection, but it can’t hurt to approach it, surely. Lasers Lasers Birmingham doesn’t try to reinvent any wheels here, or to set them on fire. In fact, there is enough heart worn on the LLB sleeve to recognise the touchstones and guess at the record collection this sound has coalesced from, the albums and artists that Owen tends towards; particularly Parsons, potentially Gene Clark, probably Eagles, this is Californian country rock, after all.
Warning is the first full-length album from LLB, and the country rock setting for the songs suits Owen’s material well, as does the loving production of Jason Soda (who has worked with a couple of other WP favourites, Gospel BeacH (a great live band to see, fronted by Brent Redemaker of Beechwood Sparks) and Miranda Lee Richards, on her lovely album Existential Beast). There was a four track EP, Royal Blue, released in 2016, which shows the direction Lasers Lasers Birmingham was moving in to get to this current album. It is interesting to compare the title track, Warning, with the version from 2014, where the sound is not country rock at all, rather a slightly baroque pop, more a cross between the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd than the Flying Burrito Brothers. You can check out this early version on Bandcamp.
Warning is no pastiche of the past, mind you. This album is a very modern take on the classic formula, a record that deserves repeat listening, packed full of melody as it is, hooks to hold you, until it makes you reach for that battered copy of GP. Alex Owen has created a sound of his own using the same ingredients his favourite artists have used for decades, but his is a modern sound, one that should chime with a broad audience, if there’s any justice. Warning is a country record that should appeal to fans of Bon Iver as well as fans of Bobby Bare, and that’s no mean feat.