The open highway has long been a wellspring of great literature, poetry and music, a blurry perpetual-motion muse beckoning with adventure, lust, decadence, violence and heartbreak. Especially for unheralded workaholic touring bands, who live a constantly worrying life of van breakdowns, redneck-infested truck stops, urine-reeking rest-area toilets and 7-Eleven corn-dog breakfasts. Life is the road and the road is life, as long as the credit card holds out and your boss at the shitty day job back home keeps taking you back.
And right now, the road is leading the four guys who make up OC's Limbeck straight to the Jelly Belly factory up near Fairfield, just outside Sacramento. "That's going to be a serious distraction," guitarist Patrick Carrie tells us from his cell phone.
A candy factory may not be a destination that recalls Kerouac, but when you're driving all day and night to make a gig in Seattle, you almost have to force yourself to be charmed by the most mundane places just to alleviate the boredom. As proud tour vets, Limbeck know this routine well—the endless, droning hours spent staring out a van window as the world whizzes past at 65-plus miles an hour.
The road was the main inspiration for their latest album, Hi, Everything's Great. But the road was also the cause of Limbeck's radical transformation—from a better-than-average, Green Day-influenced OC pop-punk band on their 2001 debut This Chapter Is Called Titles into one of the best alterna-country outfits you'll likely hear, local or otherwise.
Limbeck's unexpected sonic revolution came from desperate need. Seems that singer Robb MacLean had lost his CD wallet, so he began replacing his collection with whatever he found in the used bins of record stores in distant cities. A lot of what he found was old discount country—some Hank Williams, some Johnny Cash, Dylan's Nashville Skyline—and newer country-tinged bands like the Old '97s and Wilco.
"He was picking up a lot of that stuff and playing it for us, so our listening tastes started to change," Carrie says. The music dug into their psyches so deeply that the band gradually moved away from their punkier origins.
"What we were doing was getting pretty generic," admits Carrie. "It was starting to become very well-worn territory, and a lot of bands we knew were making music that wasn't that distinguishable from ours. But what we're playing now feels right. We're really comfortable with where we're at."
Pop in Hi, Everything's Great, and you're hit with waves of jangly, bad-tempered Telecasters, tender steel guitars, warm Hammond organs and pristine banjos. MacLean has found a distinct timbre in his voice that sounds like it's been dragged down into a gravel pit and beaten up. Song lyrics—printed on the backs of 12 mini-postcards that suggest they've been sent from someone on the run and maybe never coming home—invoke lost old friends, predawn melancholia, sleepy-eyed sunrises, all-night drives and romantic catastrophes (and a note to Emo Nation: if you're going to pen lines moaning about why your girlfriend kicked you to the curb, you can't find a much better soundtrack than country music—the original emo).
Like any great country, the songs are place-name heavy: Utah, San Diego, Tucson, Orange and a slew of Interstate numbers make cameos. It's a beautifully gritty work full of short, catchy songs—like Wilco maybe would have become had Jeff Tweedy not discovered the Beach Boys—complete with bleak, foreboding cover art that depicts a grainy, open landscape any sane person would think twice about traversing. A perfect album for blasting on long, long journeys to anywhere.
Even the band—which also includes bassist Justin Entsminger and drummer Matt Stephens—looks different, all shaggy-haired and plaid-shirt-wearing, as if they're Gram Parsons' secret lovechildren. It's a far cry from the clean-cut kids whose biggest brush with fame had been an appearance in a series of iMac TV commercials a few years ago, where they were cast as the Garage Monkeys.
Limbeck's new direction is obviously not about marketing—that would have required a move to hip-hop. It's a ballsy maneuver, something that risked alienating the robust fan base they've worked hard to build since forming in 1998. Instead of kowtowing to what they thought their public wanted, instead of cranking out sound-alike album after sound-alike album, they did what they wanted, regardless of what anyone else thought.
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"It's been really cool with the fan response," continues Carrie. "You can't make everybody happy, and there are people who've been disappointed that we aren't playing a lot of songs from our first album anymore, but at the same time it also feels cool to maybe be able to widen our audience's minds. We're still raucous enough so that our fans can still find something to hold on to."
They also didn't have to worry about winning over their new label, the Ohio-based Doghouse, an imprint more widely known for emo acts like the Get Up Kids.
"We had already signed with Doghouse before we recorded the album, but they were awesome when they found out what they were getting," Carrie says. "They were totally 110 percent behind us, though Ed Rose, our producer, kept making jokes about turning the record in and then counting the days till we get dropped."
Limbeck perform with Rocky Votolato, The Pale, The Plus Ones and The Energy at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. Sat., 7 p.m. $8. All ages.