What does an elder statesman of second-wave punk rock do when he wants to take his music down a significantly twangier path? Hook up with a quartet of former punks, who’ve been moving steadily in that very direction. Greg Graffin is best known as the singer of Bad Religion, but he might leave a lot of his fan base scratching their heads on this one. Backed by the Weakerthans (whose own front man left some Propagandhi devotees wondering what happened) and given a helping hand from folk chanteuse Jolie Holland, Cold as the Clay might be seen as a bit of a departure from Graffin’s full time gig. It has been said that country is the original punk rock, but you might be hard pressed to find any SoCal scene devotees who wholeheartedly agree. At the same time, Graffin’s solo outing will also leave country fans feeling a bit lukewarm.
Cold as the Clay has most of the elements of a great country record. Even though their own music retains much more of a pop bent, the Weakerthans shine, doing for Graffin what The Sadies did for Neko Case. Stephen Carroll often uses his tasteful leads to add a bit of down-home tinge to his band’s own material, but he’s allowed to really let loose here, to fabulous result. Similarly, whenever Jolie Holland makes an appearance, her ragged harmonies play off Graffin’s voice like Emmylou Harris did for Gram Parsons. And then there’s Graffin’s voice. I was never a huge fan of his singing in Bad Religion’s brand of punk, but he has the perfect set of pipes for this type of venture. Somehow though, all these great parts fail to add up to an overly satisfying whole. When he does hit on a winner (like on the title track), Graffin’s intelligent lyricism shines brighter in this setting than it ever did with his full time outfit. For the most part, however, the songwriting just isn’t up to snuff, and those moments are few and far between.
“Going country” seems to be the thing to do these days. Rilo Kiley’s leading lady, Jenny Lewis, paid homage to her Nashville influences to great effect earlier this year. Stars’ Amy Millan also seemed right at home on her bluegrass-soaked solo debut. Greg Graffin was on the right track when he assembled the players that joined him on this set of tunes. At the end of the day, though, no matter how many pickin’ banjos, rich slide guitars, or country chanteuses you layer on a record, it’s only as good the songs themselves. Cold as the Clay had the backing cast to support something truly special; too bad it’s merely competent.