It’s getting that time of the year when music-writing types come up with their annual top-n lists. But lately I think annual top-n lists kinda suck. Marc Hogan kinda gets what I’m talking about. I decided instead to just grab a few of the many albums that came out in 2010 that got my attention and try writing a little something about them. I promise they won’t all be this long.

I first met Samuel Locke-Ward, then just Sam Locke, when he was still in high school. I was in this band in Cedar Falls called No Consensus, and somehow we got a show in Ottumwa, Sam’s hometown, at this all-ages venue-slash-video arcade called GameZone. A band called Yellow 5 opened; Sam, the guitarist, strutted and flailed like a psychedelic conjurer during a lengthy, noisy solo on a three-chord epic called “Into The Dawn” that No Consensus later parodied as “Upward And West.”

Then Sam was in The Eggnogs. The Eggnogs had Jason Bolinger on drums — he’s in She Swings She Sways these days along with Yellow 5 bassist Troy Morgan — and Jason’s brother Josh on bass. Sonically, The Eggnogs were an odd mix of The Melvins and The Pixies, but Sam’s total-nutjob frontman style, and the way it worked with his lyrics, were what really made them interesting. The Eggnogs worked hard, rocked hard, played lots of shows, made lots of DIY recordings, and wrote several really classic yet singularly weird songs. It was apparent already that Sam had a way with a poppy chord progression and a catchy melody and even more of a way with taking that poppy chord progression or melody and subverting it with a noisy guitar, a psychologically disturbing lyric, and his distinctive performing persona.

After the end of The Eggnogs, Sam hooked up with a like-minded songwriter Jason Hennesy, his equal in catchy melodies and fucked-up lyrics, and the two of them put together the band Miracles Of God. Sam also did a whole lot of other projects — solo stuff and bands like The Kickass Tarantulas and Trophy Beau. It would make for good promo or maybe good reality TV to say that Sam’s solo career, and the prolific output it’s partly known for, got rolling when Sam was hit by a drunk driver in Columbia, Missouri, while pushing the broken-down Miracles Of God van off the road. The accident mangled his legs up pretty good, requiring extensive reconstructive surgery and a lengthy hospital stay, and one could invent a good story in which the experience impressed upon Sam the preciousness of our time on this Earth, such that he has spent every waking moment since working like mad on his music. But though the ordeal has provided inspiration for a few of his songs, the truth is that Sam has always been as intensely creative and driven as he is now; it’s said that he woke up in the hospital after the accident already trying to plan how they would be able finish the tour. (Another thing about Sam: he absolutely hates to cancel shows.) This not being possible, he kept himself occupied by recording a solo album literally in his hospital bed, the fragile folk piece Boombox By Bedside, which you can get on cassette from Unread Records.

Today, Boombox sounds like an uncharacteristically intimate piece for Sam: something in most of his work has involved a certain amount of distance, mystery, and intentional off-puttingness accomplished via blasts of noise, the affectation of lugubrious or sarcastic vocal tones (an element dating back at least as far as The Eggnogs), the occasional atonal saxophone blare from frequent collaborator Pete Balistrieri, a former member of The Horns Of Dilemma (otherwise known as the horn section of The Violent Femmes). It nonetheless makes the music, and your mental picture of the man behind it, all the more compelling.

I myself played in some of Sam’s live shows in 2008, including having the great honor of playing bass and trumpet, sometimes simultaneously, in the July 2008 “Samuel Locke-Ward and the Solid Gold Dancers” tour with The Teddy Boys, and have even posed as him once, at his request, in January 2009, shortly after I moved to Des Moines, in order to fulfill an engagement at Vaudeville Mews that conflicted with an event requiring his presence at The Mill (the Iowa City restaurant and venue where he books and runs a bit of sound).

All this makes for a rather long prelude to an article that purports to be about Sam’s latest nominally solo work, Barely Regal Beagles, but it helps me in my role as scenester to impress you with how well and for how long I am acquainted with such a talented and interesting person. Or perhaps it serves by way of disclaimer that I’m already inclined to speak well of just about anything Sam puts together. Or maybe it serves as a recap that feels necessitated by how much Barely Regal Beagles feels like it’s part of the opening of a new chapter.

For one thing, this is the first release under the Samuel Locke-Ward name that comes on actual pressed CDs — and in a glossy full-color sleeve, no less — as opposed to computer-burned CD-Rs with “SLW” sharpie’d on them, lovingly inserted into slimline cases picked up at OfficeMax, with photocopied paper inserts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: the DIY ethic has always been an important part of Sam’s modus operandi and appeal. As there’s no label name to be found on the packaging, I’m guessing Sam has had these CDs manufactured and printed at his own expense. Perhaps Grotto Records‘s offer to release From the Privilege of the Grave, his collaborative industrial-noise-folk album with Darren Brown (Texxar, Boy Dirt Car), on vinyl LP, nudged Sam in the direction of a more traditionally “professional” presentation; he’s since also done a split 7″ with his new band The Boo-Hoos, with Mumfords on the other side.

Barely Regal Beagles is certainly deserving of the semi-pro treatment: it’s quite good. And moreover, it’s possibly Sam’s most cohesive solo album yet; where previous releases might be seen as containing abundant good ideas that were yet a bit disjointed from each other, on Barely Regal Beagles all the different stylistic threads are still there — the assault-folk sound perfected with 2008’s Sacrilege, Treason, Treachery, and Thyme; the industrial-noise queasiness of Privilege and the Manhorse III The Meatbag collaboration We All Love Candy; the guitar power-pop sounds of the Boo-Hoos stuff; and lots of elements touching on the weirder regions of lo-fi indie rock and freak-folk — but now they’re also starting to really make sense together.

“Funeral For Coach” gets the album off to a strong start; the song might skirt controversy if you suspect that it references Ed Thomas. Although in the first verse Sam seem to be making fun of the titular coach who “slaps your ass,” after enough dramatic tempo changes for a Broadway musical number it ends with a soaring choir chorus that suggests a celebration of the departed’s memory being “buried in our lives,” even as a black-metal demon screams along in the background. A few other songs early in the album use such dramatic elements — there’s the shift in tape speed that effects a beautiful key/tempo change on the slightly Guided By Voices-ish “Will Be Heaven,” making the second chorus positively chilling; “You Are The Turd” packs in several changes in instrumentation and dynamics that show off Sam’s multi-instrumental prowess on keyboards, guitars, lap-steel and accordion while also giving the song heart-swelling emotional weight appropriate for lyrics that reassure the song’s subject, someone going though hard times and a trashing of their reputation, “don’t think twice, it’s all right, we’re friends.”

The punk-folk vibe Sam first started employing on Golden Favorites: Where Sobriety Is King makes an initial appearance, just barely, on the frenetic blast “Let’s Give Them Hairless Hacks”. Balistrieri’s sax wails, and there’s this weird downward-bending note from some kind of Casio keyboard that pops in during the chorus that’s almost a word of lyrics in itself. “Five Nightmares” is a bash-waltz that’s about as close to Tom Waits as Sam gets, with its deathly imagery and more of Balistrieri’s wailing sax. Just past the midpoint of the album “The River” gives us more of the shouty folk thing. The solo-acoustic “Little Moon Face” shows another, gentler facet of Sam’s folk side, and is just one of the spots on the album where Sam’s usual pessimistic facade seems to be softening a bit. Sam’s technical shortcomings as a vocalist are much in the foreground on this number, but he positively owns his flaws in a way that only a certain kind of performer can really get away with.

“Find Me A Man” shows us a bit of the pop-punk style that The Boo-Hoos have been representing, as does “Taking Away The Pop,” a portrait of an exasperated parent driving some hyperactive kids somewhere. More of this feel comes through on “The Golden Kids Are Brats” (which features a weird distorted sort of 60s beach-rock backup vocal) and “Fleas Must Go,” but not before “Hey, Well Dressed Brothers” closes the album’s first half. The song confuses me a bit: there’s a martial rhythm to the verses, and Sam switches voices in different sections suggesting a change of character roles, but I’m having a hard time connecting the lyrics of the different parts of the songs together into the narrative it suggests. The chorus seems like it might be going for a prequel to Sacrilege‘s opener, “Now We Have Won”: “We’ll fight the ones with evil ways in their hearts, we’ll come at night take no prisoners at all, we’ll make you wish you were never born.” “Church Of The Bloated Man” revisits these themes or righteous communal violence and revenge later: “Take an axe to your family’s home/We need the wood for the gallows,” he commands in a sinister whisper, and lots of things get set on fire to the sound of a Casio.

Had the album ended after “Well Dressed Brothers,” it would already be a satisfying, though short, collection. But the second half has its share of moments too. “This Pooch Shall Fly” sticks out for its unusual length — seven minutes, from a guy whose songs frequently don’t stretch to two. It comes off like a lo-fi attempt at a Melvins version of “Eye Of The Tiger.” It drones a bit, but I reckon it could be a real fist-pumper in the live show.

“Clown’s Choice” is another side-two standout for its uncomfortable possible self-referential implications; Sam is a master of the uncomfortable. Self-deprecation is one thing, but Sam brings it to a level all his own. When an artist known for a touch of the outrageous delivers a line like “you can have my dignity for money, you can have my honor for cash” with this kind of pathos, it ought to give us a bit of a shiver. It fits with the back-cover photo of Sam in a captain’s hat, holding a banjo, looking thoroughly disgusted. It’s an example of the kind of art that holds one of those makeup-counter mirrors to the human condition, magnifying all the things we usually get through the day better ignoring. Yet only a couple tracks later, the rushing chorus of “Pleasant Are The Leisure Days,” co-written with Grace, directly contradicts its premise in a defiant declaration of dignity: “I wouldn’t be caught dead/looking like a clown/for all the kids to laugh/and kick me in my ass.”

“Let’s Leave Today” caps the album off on possibly the sunniest note yet heard on a Samuel Locke Ward album, as Sam invites the listener to walk beside him on what sounds like a voyage into a happy future. It’s a strange song from him, but it works and is welcome, and coming at the end of the album it almost feels like a pointer to things to come.

There are a certain key elements that Sam has been developing the past few years that accomplish the job of pulling all these things together and giving Barely Regal Beagles a real sense of identity. Sam’s characteristic homebrew production has skill behind it won from experience — even factoring out Kent Williams‘s post-production assistance, this is some of the clearest-sounding stuff I’ve ever heard done on cassette 4-track, even with clearly more than four tracks’ worth of colorful instrumentation audible at many points. (Usually when I ping-pong tracks on a 4-track it sounds like shit, but Sam seems to have mastered it.) Then there’s that whole mad-genius thing, a touch of Eugene Chadbourne perhaps, that has grown into such a defining element of Samuel Locke Ward as a musical personality. And most importantly, there is real songwriting going on here, from someone who has learned how to find just the right sound for what he means to say. All of these things have been present in Sam’s work for some time, Barely Regal Beagles puts them all into a package that even newcomers can make sense of.

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