Singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott McCaughey. You probably don’t recognize the name right off the bat. He kinda looks like Jeff Lynne and he sorta sounds like George Harrison. He’s been touring and recording with R.E.M. for over a decade. He’s also a member of Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, wrote an album on baseball with Steve Wynn, and is a founding member of both Young Fresh Fellows and Tuatara. He’s well known for who he works with, but maybe doesn’t get enough credit for why these people want to work with him.
His umpteenth band, The Minus 5, returns this summer with Killingsworth, and it’s the group’s best since 2003’s Down with Wilco. Though this time around, it could have easily been titled Down with The Decemberists, as just about every member plays a role here. They’re in for a ride, however. Alongside eternal musical partner, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, McCaughey decided to take a trip down country lane, one that highlights his diverse songwriting and one that meanders beautifully — but let’s scale back some.
The last three albums from The Minus 5 have been pretty distinct from one another. From the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production of Down with Wilco, followed by the surf-rock-on-acid of In Rock, and then onto the pure pop of their self-titled 2006 release (also known as The Gun Album), it’s been one mixed bag for its fanbase, but in a good way. Killingsworth follows suit. It’s heavy on acoustics, slide guitars accent just the right places, and The She Bee Gees provide some gorgeous harmonies. All these traits equal an alt-country sound that’s often melancholy, but doesn’t have the listener reaching for the razor.
McCaughey counts us in to opening track “Dark Hand of Contagion”, a slow ballad accompanied by a female voice and gentle strumming on the acoustic guitar. “Your wedding day was so well-planned/Like a German occupation” promises an album full of grim words over beautiful music. “The Long Hall” features a jangle-pop guitar one assumes is courtesy of Buck, and a catchy-as-all-Hell chorus (“Are you going/To find your way down/You’ll be dyin’ too/And it may as well be there as anywhere”).
“The Lurking Barrister” and “Vintage Violet” feature more pitch-perfect harmonies from The She Bee Gees, leading up to The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy taking center stage for “Scott Walker’s Fault”. Despite this appearance (and Meloy’s had a successful year), this might be the least memorable song on the album. There are a few tracks like this that get blown away by better material on the record, but not enough to ruin Killingsworth by any means.
Fortunately, the following song makes up for a bit of a lull at the halfway mark. “Big Beat Up Moon” is a song many young songwriters wish they could write but never do, at least until they’re pushing 60, if even that. While another acoustic song, you can hear the struggle in McCaughey’s voice, as though he’s had the same thoughts and feelings about the material his whole life. He observes:
All those buildings filled up with more windows
To stare out at the big beat up moon
Their house to look down on a hundred million apartment rooms
Wondering how can their be
So many people Stacked up in rows
And still feel all alone
He places this track beside the revival-spoof, “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, with playful banjos and tambourines. “Some talk to God in different ways/I’m here to tell them their dead wrong” is an example of the direction that song takes to a successful conclusion.
The album finishes strong. “Smoke on Jerry” has a clap-along, sing-along chorus (“Keep on conniving/’til the pieces float”), “Your Favorite Mess” features great percussion from Moen and more resigned wit from McCaughey (“Sometimes you think that you’re settlin’ for less/I just want to be your favorite mess”), and closing track, the piano-led “Tonight You’re Buying Me a Drink, Bub” is a fine example of the picture McCaughey is capable of painting through his words and music.
Within this final song, we can see this loser leaning up against the bar, talking to no one yet everyone in the establishment, who has pulled out a gun at the end of the night. He might use it, but he’ll regret it when and if he sobers up. Will America ever sober up to the talents of Scott McCaughey (how’s that for a transition)? Probably not. But that hasn’t stopped the man from recording and releasing material for decades.
His last name is not pronounced the way it looks, but here’s a helpful hint: just remember “The Real McCoy.” That way you’ll remember how to say it to friends when bringing up the really good album by The Minus 5 called Killingsworth. But more importantly, you’ll be able to remember what type of musician this man is.
“The Long Hall”