Chuck McCabe,
Chicken Dinners
(BlahBlahWoofWoof, 2004)

In the notes to his decidedly down and out Bad Gravity Day, Chuck McCabe promised fans that his next album would be more upbeat. He delivers on that promise in the fully satisfying Chicken Dinners, a smiling take on everything from beer to bacon to "Blue Hawaii."

Chicken Dinners could easily have become a simple novelty album, the sort of one-note humor selection that earns itself a spot on the comedy radio shows and gets played once a year for laughs. But even the silliest of these songs is carried by some serious musical displays. Songs don't get much more ludicrous than "Fred," a lament for a truck-driving, dish-washing dog run over in the highway only to leave behind an illegitimate family. Any singer who lets himself give in to the rich temptation of howling out lyrics in such a song risks sounding at least a little ridiculous, but when he backs it up with bouncing, bayou-flavored guitar work and an acrobatic meter, it's hard not to feel a small tug of sympathy for owner and lost wonder-pet.

That rough and tumble music lets McCabe segue painlessly from the solemn gospel opry tones of "Mama Read the Bible (Through My Daddy's Whiskey Bottle)" and into the comic tragedy of "I Miss My Mustache." It also helps blend the taste of mixed emotions, so that the self mockery of a man strung out on his lover's "Mailing List" doesn't overpower the real regret, and the affectionate ribbing of "The Flavor Came From Fat" mixes perfectly with the warmth of nostalgia and respect for the resourcefulness of family elders. It's sometimes hard to tell if these are serious songs with a humorous twist, or funny songs with a does of seriousness, but they're certainly songs with a healthy portion of truth and that gives the whole album the complexity needed to turn it from a good novelty show into just plain good music.

That music borrows with glee from pretty much every tradition America has. There's a definite country-and-western influence over Chicken Dinners, pouring in through the gospel pry of "Mama Read the Bible" and "You're Always at Home in a Bar." "Don't Be Rude (To the People Who Bring Your Food)" offers some deep truths with a blue, almost mod-rock sound that's more than balanced by the relaxed folk strains of "Our House." These influences flavor McCabe's own basic folk-rock sound like salt seasons a good meal, making him sound more like himself rather than derivative.

Chicken Dinners is two hoots and a holler, a collection of road trips and tall tales roped together with blues-bar country and front-porch picking. It's definitely an album worth perking up your ears for, so you don't miss any of the laughable details in "Tears Ran Down My Cheeks" or any of the sage advice delivered in good natured gore-crow tones in "Don't Be Rude." But it's also an album worth relaxing into, letting the beat turn off your brain and the guitar speak for itself. Comfortable as an old friend, and interesting as an old friend who's had the decency to stay away for a while, Chicken Dinners is a welcome addition to any evening.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 2 October 2004

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