The Barn Burners: Shot Down
Hopefully this Baltimore quartet’s third outing (on City Paper contributor Benn Ray’s Atomic Twang label) will separate the meat and potatoes honky-tonk fans from the carb-counting tourists. True to the rekindled fire in roots-rock, singer/songwriter Bob Kannenberg’s songs seem to follow the right format, starting with a character, a scene, or just a really bad day. Now just add a drawl, small-town setting, and appeals to homespun wisdom.
What separates Kannenberg’s yarns from the average bear is the utter absence of polish and prettiness. He knows well enough that twang is but a surface, that honky-tonky gets its gritty guts from a lack of country affectations and rock ’n’ roll pretensions. It helps that Kannenberg has a voice only a deaf mother could love. Because it’s not the dulcet sound that counts; it’s what you can do with what your maker gave ya that sells stories.
That’s why Kannenberg and the Barn Burners are closer kin to a cat like Gurf Morlix than, say, Whiskeytown and the Jayhawks and all their Western shirts. Nothing about Shot Down hits the ears dressed up. “Throwin’ Your Life Away,” a kiss-off from a guy to a gal getting hitched—“Are you doing this for love?/ Are you doing it for spite?/ Or just because the drugstore was closed one night?”—feels like bar banter, not workshopped songcraft. The giddy, galloping backbeat to “Cheatin’ to Lose” permits the song’s womanizing sweet talker to be the sort lovable asshole everybody knows. And “Rockin’ With Viola (at the Laundromat)” finds Kannenberg nailing a souped-up rockabilly dance number with that rarity of rock ’n’ roll rarities: a tasteful guitar solo. Shot Down, the Barn Burners’ first in four years, cruises along like a well-kept classic car. Kannenberg may have kept his songwriting engine garaged for a few years, but it runs just fine.