The Oswalds’ debut record, 1988’s Oswald This, makes a pretty credible case that this New York City urban-roots outfit had the right idea just a couple of culture-beats too soon. If, on the eve of recording, the drummer had suffered a bicycle courier accident with a moderately long aftermath of recovery and litigation, I might not know any of these guys today. Jack White or Jeff Tweedy might have produced Hasta la Bye Bye, their spanking-new reunion record.
The Oswalds – those Oswalds, at least – were a smart, stylistically acquisitive country revival band of sorts, with one ear pointed Southwest, toward the border and toward Bakersfield. At the time, the country music boardroom was theorizing Garth Brooks and Shania Twain and the jingoistic pop/rock co-opt (three times fast) that still obtains. Not just Johnny Cash but George Jones, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and so many others fell into the laps of the rock kids for love and legacy maintenance. The new country artists in the old narrative mode – Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dwight Yoakam – never even cultivated much of a real country audience.
Or maybe it didn’t happen that way, I don’t know; but the point is that country – old country, once as reviled by rockers as disco – was rediscovered as a bottomless golden vein of dark myth, tragic and romantic pathos and loner personae in the age of grunge. Rick Rubens’ late legendeering of Cash may be its commercial apotheosis, but just last week I was writing about the enduring resonance of Old 97’s and Uncle Tupelo. And the Oswalds were right there, a few beats too soon.
They Might have been too smart for success, anyway. They Might have been consigned to the karmically-privileged-but-organically-sordid “too smart” bin where so many of my favorites languish harshly on dog food and the successes of old friends. On Hasta la Bye Bye, nearly 20 years later, a lot has changed in their sound, but one fact hasn’t: The Oswalds’ main songwriter, Camden Joy, can, to paraphrase Les Claypool, write the balls off a rhinosaurus.
It is remarkable, in fact, how many balls he can juggle within a single song, keeping them aloft between songs as well; for his lyrical concerns are focused, obsessive and cumulative. Joy is an established rock critic, novelist and baseball writer (though you’ll have to learn his other name to lasso all of it). All that actionable knowledge and deep reading lends his songs an enriched supply of detail, reference, connectivity and historical perspective at play, making it all seem more New Journalism than song, but for his technically excellent prosodics and the mad-mariachi-roots-rock arrangements behind him, courtesy of founding Oswald, bassist Mark Lerner (Life in a Blender).
Hasta la Bye Bye is a concept record. In that Joycean way, you would need to know all the things that Camden Joy does to grok the concept fully, and I don’t; but it is not that hard to enter the world, or to marvel at it. Hasta la Bye Bye concerns the Mexican drug trade, the gangster culture of cartels, the mythologies of the narcocorrido (a subgenre of Norteña music), the Federales, the ignorant bliss and complicity of stateside hedonists and the messy, messy ends that await everyone involved. Many drugs are referenced, but the opiates preferred. Murder and death are everywhere south of the border, and meanwhile the dalliance of the US end user takes its own morbid turn. It’s a carnival of blood all around.
The record begins with numb ennui and ends with something more like hope. In the stunning, darkly comic opening track “Rascacielo,” Joy sings of the drug trade and its gangster mythologies:
They shot the singer who sang about the singer they shot
Who sang about a man who possesses all they want
Like that fat blossom thick with ants that thrills our Lord
And they’ll shoot this singer soon once they get bored
Its concept is 360 degrees, airtight and almost shockingly coherent. Woven in, because this kind of coherence isn’t entirely in fashion, is a more elusive, symbolic romance thread of some kind: a “she” and a “her” who appears regularly and who may or not be a personification of the false Grail of drugged euphoria (or the false Grail of drug-wrought riches). She runs off with the second half of the remarkably good indie-rocker “Without a Parachute,” and is given one song entirely to herself: “Her,” a fuzzed-out, stomping cautionary rocker:
Brother better watch her
She’s the daughter of a leopard and she’s not very nice
She kicks and cries and kisses you so nice.
Shoots your guide and stomps off with your life
Sonically, Hasta la Bye Bye is noisy, skittish, comic and profoundly imaginative. For every dry indie-rocker there’s a broken mariachi cartoon or a surreal, carnivalesque sound accident like the insane “My Mind’s Alive.” Joy, Lerner and drummer Mark Donato rock and swing shambolically but arrange precisely, hitting a very sweet spot on the loose-but-tight and pro-but-amateur curves.
I haven’t stopped listening to this exceptionally smart, meaningful and fun record since it dropped in my lap a few months ago. It is unique. I wonder how it plays live. I intend to find out on Sunday, May 1, when the Oswalds celebrate the release of Hasta la Bye Bye at BSP in Kingston, with a pretty A-list opener on hand: the duo of Chris Maxwell and Ambrosia Parsley. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and costs $8 at the door (a stupid value).
BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. To get a listen to Hasta la Bye Bye, visit https://camdenjoy.bandcamp.com.
Hasta la Bye Bye release show, Oswalds with Chris Maxwell & Ambrosia Parsley, Sunday, May 1, 7:30 p.m., $8, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.