Americana. Cowpunk. Even alt-country, though that genre didn’t come to cultural prominence until well after the band broke up, several years too soon to ride the No Depression wave like similarly minded acts such as Uncle Tupelo and Alejandro Escovedo did.
Perhaps not being so easy to label contributed to The Long Ryders’ heyday being so brief — the Los Angeles-based quartet lasted through three albums and an EP released between 1983-87 — but the upside to their varied styles and sensibilities was that nobody sounded quite like them at the time. They proudly leaned on country-rock influences such as The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield but incorporated revved-up arrangements and flashes of punk-rock urgency. (See not only their signature track, “Looking for Lewis and Clark,” but also their bold, rip-roaring cover of Mel Tillis’ “(Sweet) Mental Revenge.”)
Some three decades after they folded, The Long Ryders again display their range, songcraft and spark, with some new wrinkles, too, on Psychedelic Country Soul (Omnivore Recordings), their first collection of new recordings in 32 years. It’s not really a reunion album — the band has mounted sporadic tours since the split — and it shows. An effort as convincing as this one makes it hard to believe that the four members — guitarist-singer Sid Griffin, guitarist-singer Stephen McCarthy, drummer Greg Sowders and bassist-singer Tom Stevens — had not been in the studio together for so long.
But then, the sense of time is a funny thing when it comes to this band: Psychedelic Country Soul finds the group mining its past yet moving forward and evolving.
The familiar parts are plenty, right from the top. “Greenville,” the bouncy, huge-hooked leadoff track, is followed by “Let It Fly,” a twang-folk number drenched in pedal steel, mandolin and fiddle. The old feistiness can be found, too, whether in call-to-action lyrics (“All aboard to slay a dragon/All aboard to cross the moat/All aboard to storm the castle/Making music as we float”) or on “What the Eagle Sees,” a propulsive rocker that harkens back to the best of the band’s ’80s anthems.
Longtime fans might be surprised, however, to find such fiery moments are somewhat scattered throughout the album. There is a bit less bite and more of a mature, polished feel than on the older material. Not that this is a bad thing.
Some of the mellower moments rate among the disc’s best. McCarthy’s acoustic-flavored “Gonna Make It Real” packs a playful swagger and could be mistaken for a lost Gram Parsons number. And “If You Want to See Me Cry,” penned and sung by Griffin, is a stirring ballad that represents a rarity in the band’s canon: It is, quite literally, a tear-jerker.
Elsewhere, an otherwise fairly straightforward cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Walls” contains an uplifting, if slickly produced, coda featuring layers of backing vocals, with Debbi and Vicki Peterson of The Bangles pitching in.
The disc chugs to a finish with the spacey title track, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that its name might represent The Long Ryders’ own attempt at describing their music. Characterizing Psychedelic Country Soul, however, is easy enough: Call it a worthy, welcome return.
— By George Henn