The phrase “indie supergroup” gets bandied about a fair amount these days, pretty much any time musicians from one relatively well-known band decide to get together and cut some tracks with the members of another, most likely also well-known outfit. Never mind that “indie supergroup” is more than a slight oxymoron, but the label—and the fervor of fans expecting to hear what amounts to a mash-up of their favorite artists—often obscures its true nature: Most of the time they’re just a bunch of musicians who share a similar interest, enjoy playing together (see: Monsters of Folk, Wild Flag, Jack White and any person who can carry a tune) and who want to explore some new territory that’s not dictated by their day jobs.
The Diamond Rugs, on their self-titled debut for Partisan Records, fit this last description perfectly. The brainchild of Deer Tick’s resident caterwauler John McCauley, the group also features McCauley’s bandmate Robbie Crowell, Ian Saint Pé of the Black Lips, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate and Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne. Deer Tick’s sound is clearly the blueprint here, and the album exudes the brash, jangly, always raw and occasionally irreverent take on countrified rock that McCauley and Crowell’s band has made its calling card. Even so, the Diamond Rugs for the most part do not rehash that sound but expand upon it. “Call Girl Blues,” with its gaudy horns and straggly guitar, recalls the best of the Stones circa Sticky Fingers. The rolling melody and echoing drums on “Out on My Own” are downright Springsteen-esque, and it is a testament to the band’s ingenuity that six guys who you’d never really associate with classic rock can take some time-worn sounds and make them their own.
Even better is when the Diamond Rugs throw genre out the window, as in “Country Mile,” which is certainly the most varied—and perhaps the best—track on the album. With Hardy on vocals, the song starts out as a swampy, gloomy jam before seamlessly transitioning into a twangy Nashville refrain. This back-and-forth continues for three minutes before the song dissolves into a reverb-laden guitar workout complete with spacey noise effects. ADD? Maybe. Engrossing? Absolutely.
Such is the case with almost the entire first half of the album. McCauley, Saint Pé and Hardy each get their fair share of frontman duties during this stretch, and together they cultivate a boozy, hangdog, blue-collar persona that speaks of lost women and a charmingly roguish lifestyle; “I got problems / But no more problems than any other man,” Saint Pé drawls on the rollicking, harmonica-filled opener “Hightail.” This is not a band that should play in a performance hall, or even a local coffee shop. The Rugs belong in a dimly lit dive with sawdust on the floor and cheap beer on tap, where they can carouse and let loose energy while still pondering quandaries such as one McCauley puts forth in the penetrating Mandarin Dynasty cover “I Took Note”: “And it’s like they always say /If you love something give it away / But what are you supposed to do when you love everything?”
There are, however, instances where the Rugs’ amiable churlishness falls flat, especially on the album’s comparatively underwhelming second half. “Hungover and Horny” is bawdy yet repetitive, and the forlorn “Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant” amounts to little more than a novelty song (Although it does contain the chuckle-inducing rhyme “How’s the turkey? / How’s the ham? / I can’t finish my moo goo gai pan”). Saint Pé’s languorous, I-don’t-give-a-shit delivery on “Blue Mountains” becomes cloying after one verse, and it’s clear that Diamond Rugs’ off-the-cuff approach only works when they put some creative jolt into their songs.
Even through the missteps, though, the band’s musicianship shines. Dufresne’s bare-as-bones snare drum punctuates every song with proto-punk force and, more than anything else, brings a cohesive tone to the entire record. His rhythm section accomplice Crowell leads the charge on bass, and on a number of songs, especially the standout “Big God,” Crowell’s uncluttered but relentless notes are the driving element behind the music. Berlin, who is perhaps the least likely member of the group, makes his presence felt with horns that add texture and life to a number of songs, especially “Gimme a Beer” (which is the only song that truly rips off a Deer Tick tune, but it’s just as boisterous and enjoyable as “Let’s All Go to the Bar.” McCauley even states that one of his goals in life is to have a dog that pisses on his neighbor’s fence). Add that to McCauley, Morris and Saint Pé’s ragged guitars and lovable loser vocals, and the Diamond Rugs emerge from their first full-length effort as a cohesive, spirited country-punk collective that brings out the best in each member. Hopefully the “supergroup” label won’t weigh these guys down, and they’ll be clattering away in darkened bars for at least another album.