Michael Rank's been sporting that "What Would Keith Richards Do?" bracelet so long it's fused to his skin. That STAG, the new band from the Snatches of Pink leader, boasts a little Stonesy flavor is hardly news.
But what's striking is how it's deployed: Where Snatches of Pink plunged into the grimiest corners with Saturday night's dregs, STAG's debut, Kin, sits on the brink of Sunday morning, glimpsing those virgin rays of light with weary bemusement.
"Your cigarettes are played/ phone calls all been made," Rank sings in the title track's first stanza, before bidding his lover and this old life goodbye. "There's not enough hours in the night time/ and the days go on a little too long."
This ragged, dissolute soul once hung half-lidded and fully lit in the corner, shaking an empty glass of Makers with rehearsed indifference. It seems he has shelved his drink and reconsidered his stance. Keith Richards can laugh at death (fame and fortune already pocketed, after all), but Kin pauses for a second in the mirror and finally puts the leather jacket back in the closet.
While there's enough electric guitar, slide and lap steel from Patty Hurst Shifter's Marc E. Smith that you could hardly call the double-disc Kin unplugged, Rank does spend most of his time here on acoustic. He's backed by Daryl White on upright bass, with Sara Romweber and John Howie Jr. tag-teaming drums. A cast of regional roots greats—Chatham County Line's John Teer and Calico Haunts' Alex Iglehart, for instance—bolster the decidedly Sticky Fingers air of these country blues. But the Stonesy side is downplayed. For one, the swagger's not there, replaced by somber sobriety that's outgrown Marlon Brando's rebellious sneer of "What've you got?" Rank smartly plays up the country aspects, too, amplifying the done-with-dissipation vibe and the woodsy Americana tone. Though many of the songs are ostensibly about ending a relationship, the sentiments are cut with an end-of-childish-games undercurrent.
"You and me keep rolling from bad to worse. That look in your eye is how a dream starts to turn," Rank sings near the end of "The Eye Teeth," as Nathan Golub's pedal steel yelps. "Baby you're a curse."
Rank wants you to hear this like a classic album—each side is seven songs and takes its own CD. The quieter baseline makes the louder moments more powerful, and the lack of lyrical desperation conspires with the generally gentler pace. The songs are more sympathetic and approachable than perhaps anything Rank's ever done. During "Straw Man," Teer's fiddle and Smith's lap steel cohabit beautifully, bringing a Southern rock levity until Rank adds the scratchy wail of his electric. Late-night walkabout "The Goat" is a moody wonder, with its cool 12-bar piano interlude, sweet harmonies and smoldering intensity.
It's a little late in Rank's career to call Kin "a mature album," but it's never too late to grow up, or at least to recognize that all the Propecia and Grecian Formula in the world won't change a simple truth: The road might go on forever, but the party always, inevitably, ends.
And, hey man, you can't sleep here.
Correction (April 4, 2012): The rebellious sneer of "What've you got?" was Marlon Brando (not James Dean), in The Wild One.