The Tractors

Trade Union

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Since the ten songs and 39 minutes of music on Trade Union, the Tractors' fourth non-holiday album, sound like they could have been recorded by a competent Southern bar band in a weekend, it may seem surprising that this is the group's follow-up to Fast Girl, which appeared in 2001 (there was also a Christmas set, The Big Night, a mere six and a half years ago), and, from bandleader Steve Ripley's extensive liner notes, it sounds like he and his fellow musicians have been working away at it at the Church Studio in Tulsa, OK, all these years. (Although 22 musicians and singers appear on the disc, it's not clear who besides Ripley is a permanent member of the Tractors at this point, but then it's hard to keep a working band together when it's not actually working.) The history of popular music is full of eccentric auteurs laboring away year after year in search of musical perfection, from Brian Wilson and John Fogerty to Tom Scholz and Lucinda Williams, and Ripley seems to be bidding to join their ranks. In his case, however, perfection seems to consist in coming up with the ideal off-the-cuff-sounding first-take-like "feel" performance, so rough it has count-ins and breakdowns left on the track. Ripley wants to re-create the swampy history of Tulsa country/blues/rock, à la Leon Russell and J.J. Cale, both of whom, not coincidentally, turn up on the record sounding very much like themselves. And, it must be said, he very largely succeeds. His idols, dating back to the days of the Sun Studio, may have turned out this sort of thing a lot quicker, but Ripley has come up with tracks that sound like they might have been made in the mid-'50s or the late '60s. Except for one thing, Delaney Bramlett would be proud. Most of Ripley's antecedents put together their kinetic, claustrophobic instrumental tracks to support a standout vocalist, say, Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. For all his perfectionism, Ripley completely overlooks his own inadequacies as a singer. Gruff-voiced and undistinguished, his vocals alternate between disappearing in the instrumentation and being overwhelmed by his own background singers. It's amazing that he should put so much effort into something (in the service of making it sound effortless, of course) and yet fail to recognize this flaw right in the middle of the picture. Yes, a competent Southern bar band could have made Trade Union in a weekend, and they could have made an even better album if they fired the singer.

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