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Serendipitous serenades 

Slobberbone slides back to the basics with Slippage

It's a mixture of endeavor and synchronicity that we arrive when and where we do, like nature and nurture locked in a double-helix embrace, competing for steerage of our fate. Pulled this way and that by impulses toward country and rock, Slobberbone's latest album, Slippage, arrives as an expected surprise, a predictable trajectory that nonetheless lands with shocking clarity and force, like a right cross that seems to circle for hours in the second before the lights go out.

The album's sound is a collision of the group's earlier styles, stripped down to four-piece basics, but with bigger hooks and a crunchy rock drive that almost entirely eschews the laconic snatches of acoustic flavor that colored -- at times pervaded -- earlier albums. Overall, it feels like a Replacements album, particularly given the band's ragged, rootsy roar and singer/ guitarist Brent Best's predilection to populate his songs with drunks, losers and the otherwise directionless, wandering about like refugees from an Elmore Leonard novel.

Best's literate lyrics could rival Westerberg in his heyday. He peruses the pockmarked corners of our damaged souls, casting a jaded eye at our cherished habits and common pratfalls. On the ferocious rocker, "Write Me Off," he questions a woman's dedication to "such a ludicrous case lost," suggesting, "It's not some praiseworthy conceit/But it's a bit more realistic if I pre-admit defeat/And all I might suggest is expectations have their cost." On the bittersweet ballad, "Live on in the Dark," he concludes that, "We've only ever come together just to test each other's mettle/Or to justify subsistence or bolster our resistance to the idea that we should struggle when we could just settle."

Is it simply chance that Peter Jesperson, who discovered the Replacements, became Slobberbone's A&R guy when the group's old label, Doolittle, got absorbed by New West Records? It's certainly no coincidence that Don Smith produced, engineered and mixed their new album. Smith (Tom Petty, Rolling Stones, Cracker) was chosen because of the job he'd done on the Bash & Pop's Friday Night is Killing Me album, the sole release by former 'Mats bassist Tommy Stinson -- one of Best's favorite albums of the last 10 years.

"I love the way it sounds," says Best of Slippage. "I think it's still ragged. And that's how I feel about that Bash & Pop album. ... [Smith] didn't really push us in any direction, he was great at getting what we were doing song-wise, without getting in the way. We knew even before we hooked up with Don, we wanted to streamline instrumentation-wise compared to the last album.

Having toured with a temperamental banjo for two-and-a-half years, Slobberbone was anxious to get back into the studio with just guitars, bass and drums. "If you're going in another direction song-wise it helps to strip back," Best says.

The exception to the album's "big crappy guitar" sound, as Best describes it, is the cover of "To Love Somebody," which like everything else with the band, was a product of serendipity. "I had heard a version on a Flying Burrito Brothers album that I loved, and we were rehearsing at a buddy's bar one week in Dallas, back before we did the album. I just started playing it while everyone else was screwing around, and the band started in. It was really nice, but I didn't know it was a Bee Gees tune."

The group recorded it, Best says, intending to have it as an extra, non-album track, but Best liked it so much he began to consider putting it on the record. "That evening, Jesperson came into the studio and listened to it a couple times," he says. "He very quietly sat down next to me and said, 'Whatever you want to do is fine, but I would be very disappointed if you didn't put that on the album.'

"I just learned when stuff happens that way, don't question it, just do it," Best says. "Because whenever you spend a lot of time planning something it always ends up being kind of mediocre crap, so you might as well go with whatever sort of goes your way."

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