The Minus 5 – Killingsworth [Album]

Originally published at Sonic Dice, July 2009.

It’s probably worth getting a few issues out in the open first. The Minus 5 are one of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s many sides projects, and have been releasing records since 1993, but to frankly diminishing returns since their major label departure in 2001. You may know The Minus 5’s main man Scott McCaughey from R.E.M.’s live shows, he of long shaggy hair, semi-permanent sunglasses and frequent cowboy hats. Killingsworth sees The Minus 5 pursuing their usual alt country sound, which sounds rather like pulling on a comfortable, faithful old pair of boots. Also, the titles of Killingsworth’s tracks are brilliant. Does anyone put any effort into their song names anymore? This band certainly do; it really makes you want to rip the CD out of its case, slam-dunk it into your stereo and listen to Dark Hand of Contagion, The Disembowlers and Tonight You’re Buying Me A Drink, Bub. Now their CV has figurative daubs of yellow highlighter pen all over it, we can actually focus on The Minus 5’s music.

Firstly the positives; there are some confidently-delivered, swaggering tracks on offer here. Dark Hand of Contagion begins the album in rudimentary, drunkenly acoustic style. It’s a strong, understated opening that sounds burnt by a midwestern climate, the edges yellowed and faded by the sun. With the assistance of some female harmonies over the top, some lyrics truly stand out (“Your wedding day was so well-planned, like a German occupation”) and Contagion benefits from not really having a chorus, making it seem like part of the bar room furniture. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy muscles McCaughey off the mic to take command of Scott Walker’s Fault. This is not only one of the more distinctive tracks – with a fine chorus and an accordion solo worth more than just novelty value – but possibly the best The Minus 5 have to offer. Scott Walker’s Fault trades upon its bar band feel, with fellow Decemberist John Moen’s pitter-pattering drums sounding particularly bright and lively. Meloy’s nasal tone cuts to the chase through a two-line verse before getting into a melodic pre-chorus underpinned by warm choral “ahh-ahh’s”. This ushers in a sweet chorus, the words of which are chanted by female backing singers, placed at an airy distance in the mix. Big Beat Up Moon immediately follows, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Wilco, with whom The Minus 5 released a collaborative record in 2003. Although in hindsight, it’s probably not great that one of the best moments of Killingsworth simply recalls a superior band which operates full-time. Nevertheless, I Would Rather Sacrifice You continues the album’s sweet spot, folkish in a proud Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam tradition. Buck’s guitar parts and a banjo track really shine here, as do McCaughey’s effective anti-fundamentalist lyrics, topped off with an uplifting gospel-cum-country-and-western chorus. These are probably the best tracks if only because they don’t succumb to the syrupy alt country formula that characterises the majority of Killingsworth. They instead showcase a vein of more distinctive-sounding material, Scott Walker’s Fault providing the album with a kick-start it needed.

But negative aspects are also in abundance; McCaughey’s voice is good but not great, performing its task and nothing more. The verbose lyrics of The Disembowlers are representative of the album as a whole, only very sporadically hitting the mark; they’re just a little too wordy and syllabic to match the backing tracks. Any suggestion of violence implied by this song’s name isn’t born out in the gentle trot of the music, whose pedal steel solo sounds more ‘country’ than ‘alt’. Although The Lurking Barrister introduces some fine banjo playing – and the “yeah-yeah-yeah/no-no-no” backup vocals are a nice touch – the oft-repeated title weighs the track down somewhat. Similarly, Peter Buck’s guitar work does the job, but is nowhere near his hook-laden best. The Long Hall’s twinkling guitar line belongs in part to Out of Time-era R.E.M., but apart from this not much happens despite a Bright Eyes-ish lilt to the vocals. An impression is gained that this second track is simply introducing a full band after the sparse Dark Hand of Contagion; there really isn’t much to write home about here. Unfortunately, this soon proves symptomatic of the rest of the album, which seems to loll into something of a rut. Whilst it may seem a cheap shot to criticise Buck purely on the basis of his work with R.E.M., the Losing My Religion mandolin in the background of Ambulance Dancehall suggests he is phoning his performance in somewhat. Solos are mainly left to other instruments such as violins and a continuously-recurring pedal steel guitar, making it seem even more like Buck’s heart isn’t really in Killingsworth. Whilst it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to be the star of this side-project, more of a contribution would be appreciated.

The Minus 5 seem to flourish when they knuckle down and function as a tight unit; Smoke On, Jerry, another relatively sparse track, is succinct and to the point. Your Favourite Mess is both the most ambitious and most successful track of Killingsworth’s final act. The woozy, waltzy atmosphere is a refreshing change of pace, backed up by a great guitar line, cartoon villain’s entrance theme organ and McCaughey finding a comfortable key to his vocals. Closer Tonight You’re Buying Me a Drink, Bub is a similarly compact composition, taking cues from – and garnering equally positive results as – Smoke On, Jerry’s focussed attack. The whirr of a Wurlitzer and Moen’s laconic drum beat reinforces the American bar room atmosphere. With less to the tracks – just voice, acoustic and pedal steel guitar on Dark Hand of Contagion and Big Beat Up Moon – there is more focus to McCaughey’s voice, which may not be perfect but is endearing in its workmanlike, road-worn confidence.

Vintage Violet and Gash in the Cocoon are probably the album’s lowlights, being the least-distinctive material here. Vintage Violet is typical of the album’s laboured opening, largely devoid of anything to distinguish it from previous songs. It does boast a great violin solo – which is the highlight of the song, incidentally – but that’s not exactly the sort of thing that leaps out at you, it should be complimentary, rather than the track’s redeeming feature. There can’t be many conversations in pubs up and down the land beginning with an eager, “Cor! Did you get a load of that violin solo?”. Gash in the Cocoon allows the album to slip back into the forgettable, slapdash approach of its outset after a largely-successful middle, sounding the same as many other tracks on Killingsworth. Probably the only thing that will stick in your head from Gash in the Cocoon is the “any draughty cranium will do” line. But this in turn brings with it the feeling that perhaps The Minus 5 are something of a one-trick pony, as by this time female backing vocals are becoming an increasing fixture in the choruses. It’s as if the band realise they need a more unique sound with which to arrest the listener, but can’t come up with any other way of doing so other than a nice melodic voice in the chorus.

The main problem with Killingsworth is, despite being a pleasant and enjoyable listen whilst it lasts, it washes over the listener to a large degree. There isn’t very much that will truly remain in your mind except a few bits and pieces. It’s all rather moribund and American, not possessing the personality and uniqueness of the environment captured in its charming scrapbookish artwork. Being that seven of Killingsworth’s fourteen tracks quite readily pass the listener by, an average mark is the best it can hope for. Despite being a solid, professional piece of work, it’s difficult to imagine those outside The Minus 5’s fanbase – if there is such a thing – really caring. The rest of us can be entirely forgiven for responding with a collective ‘Meh’.

5 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 3 out of 6

Cooking Vinyl
The Minus 5 on Myspace
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