We Can Be Horses
There’s a lot of talk lately in pop culture about the anti-hero. Whether it’s Don Draper from Mad Men, Walter White of Breaking Bad, or Dexter of, well, Dexter, we’re consistently fascinated with characters who are at odds with society and ultimately at odds with themselves. The truth is that the anti-hero is nothing new. Looking back less than half a century, we find in Western films and television shows protagonists navigating a world of ruthlessness, deception, and greed often escaping or seeking redemption from some dark history. This is the world and the cast of characters songwriter Ryan Necci explores with Buffalo Gospel on the group’s new album, We Can Be Horses.
What’s most apparent about We Can Be Horses after even a cursory listen is the level of craftsmanship. The production is crisp and the songs are thoroughly arranged while Necci ties together snippets of world-weary wisdom that is a staple of old-time country and western music and that add to the outsider perspective of the anti-hero. On album opener “Song Of The Ox,” Necci ruminates on balancing passing time and religion, singing, “I know it’s a thin line / Between heaven and here / And I wash in the river / And this year will be my year.” “When God’s Away On Business” highlights the group’s ability to maximize sparse, minimalist compositions by effectively layering soft finger-picked guitar and thunderous strings while juxtaposing Necci’s John Prine-inspired delivery with fellow Milwaukee songwriter Heidi Spencer’s vocal harmonies. The group also features local music stalwart Allen Coté on guitar and lap steel, Brian Wells on bass, Ryan Ogburn on mandolin, Kyle Keegan on percussion, and additional contributions from Ben Lester and John Patek.
Where the anti-hero of today might go as far as to emulsify the body of an enemy in hydrofluoric acid, the anti-hero of yesterday was more likely to shoot enemies from a distance. In similar fashion, Necci leaves much of his conflicts to our imagination. What we’re left with is the internal struggle of characters dealing with the past, as on “Mule,” where Necci sings, “Mine is a history of blues / Worn out and used / Well I’m damned if I do / And I’m damned if I don’t / And the heaviest thing that I carry is my heart,” or with a tumultuous possibilities of a life at sea on “The Long Way Home.” “Bartender, bartender, oh what have I done / I’ve signed up to die out at sea with a gun / I’d rather grow old and fat on a farm / With a sweet little curly-haired girl on my arm.” It’s a formula that’s heavy on sentiment but suits the framework perfectly.
Listeners of bluegrass, country, and folk who are likely to pick up this album are going to find an extremely satisfying, stylistically true-to-tradition album that has been polished to a sheen and allows the talents of the players to be at the forefront. What listeners won’t find is a lot of surprises. We Can Be Horses won’t leave you gasping or on the edge of your seat, but unlike Mr. White and Dexter who are dealing with the world’s chaos right here and now, Necci’s characters have the advantage of tackling their struggles through the lens of the past, where good and bad are clearer in perspective, and what carries them through is the tough lessons they’ve learned along the way.