even though the literate char-acter sketches of Slobberbone's Brent Best are more typical of the cerebral, folky side of the alt-country spectrum, the raunchy performances of the Denton, Texas, roughnecks often rock right off the end of the rowdy scale. So you can understand why Slobberbone have never really been comfortable with the Americana tag. Little did they know that all they had to do to rid themselves of it was drop the banjo.
Despite the production credit for Don Smith (Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Cracker) on Slobberbone's latest disc, Slippage (New West), it doesn't really sound that different from their previous releases. As far as the songwriting goes, Best is still crafting the same heartbroken slice-of-life dramas that impressed Stephen King enough to give Slobberbone a shout-out in his best-selling thriller Black House.
They've just taken a tip from the Drive-by Truckers and replaced the old banjo-picking with some Skynyrdesque riffage, and suddenly the alt-country also-rans are being hailed as a serious rock 'n' roll threat.
According to Best, the reduction in twang wasn't part of an elaborate plan to spring Slobberbone from the roots ghetto, although he doesn't sound like he'd be displeased if that was the net result.
"The banjo is a very temperamental instrument," explains Best over his cellphone before a show in Tampa, Florida. "After travelling with one for the last two years, we were sick of it. There were a couple of songs recorded with banjo for the new album, but when we were finalizing the track listing, it was obvious that those songs just didn't fit.
"Really, the only plan was to try to make an upbeat album this time, but it wound up being fairly dark again. Most of my best songs come from that place. At this point writing a great happy song would be a huge accomplishment."
Despite the fact that Slobberbone continue to balance the smart and sloppy elements of their music with a skill not seen since the Replacements at their peak, they're still largely dismissed without a second glance because of their unfortunate handle.
They've been told by sharper folks that a mainstream breakthrough could be a name change away, but right or wrong, they're sticking with Slobberbone.
"Before we released the new album, we thought seriously about changing our name," laughs Best, "for about five minutes.
"We used to joke that we'll know we've made it when we overcome the stigma of our name, but I'm actually starting to see that happening. More and more people are coming up to me after shows saying how they'd heard about our group for years but thought there was no way on earth that a band called Slobberbone could do anything worth hearing. But someone they know made them listen to us and now they're telling their friends about us.
"So in a way, it's like a pass-key to an exclusive club. If you're open-minded enough to get past the absolutely horrible name, you're in for good."firstname.lastname@example.org
SLOBBERBONE with Precious Little and Will Johnson at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (December 17). Free. 416-598-4753.