The story goes that Anthony Confalone (AKA “Tony the Bookie” , a moniker acquired in his long residency as the booking agent for Somerville, MA club PA’s Lounge, but one which nicely doubles as an indication of the kind of seedy, beer-soaked, mortality-heavy, miserable bastard country music Confalone writes), before each take of every song on his debut full-length Tony the Bookie presents…The Tony the Bookie Orchestra!, lifted a glass of Dewars to his mouth and took a swig. I probably should have swapped the glass out for a bottle, and the Dewars for some kind of bourbon, but hey, this is a music blog with some journalistic standards. There’s something to the classiness of the scotch, though, for despite the roughshod misery of a bunch of dudes howling “on the day that you left me/I knew my life would never ever be the saaaaaaaaame” in a unison so wild there’s actually about a major second span between the various notes, Confalone’s songs are incredibly well-written and well-crafted. He may be drunk, but he knows what he’s doing. Confalone describes the band as a bunch of weirdos trying to play country music, and that’s about as accurate and concise a description as you’re going to get from me. The genre touchstones are all there: lyrics about sin and church bells, twangy lead guitars, ever-present death, plaintive pedal steel, that high lonesome voice-cracking sound (altered here a bit by the fact that Confalone actually has quite a low voice), those sinking melismas at the end of each line, but the Bookie Orchestra never sinks into pastiche or self-parody. The musical template may be country, but the content of the songs (mostly pain, like in any good country song) resonates beyond the framework in which they’re delivered, and most importantly, Confalone never steps over the line into weird authenticity gaming by, say, singing in a put-on southern accent. This has been a pet peeve of mine ever since I noticed that about half of American rock bands today sing with fake British accents. Don’t get me wrong, I like Gang of Four too, guys, and there is always an extent to which influence is unconsciously absorbed, which is fine. Someone writing country inspired music is likely to pick up a little bit of twang just like an aspiring suburban MC is probably going to pick up and throw around some slang he didn’t learn on his neatly landscaped streets. However, it can quickly get out of hand and turn into something that is at best distracting and at worst offensive. What makes Confalone’s music so good is that it sounds not like an old country record, but like new music made by people who listen to a lot of great old country records. When his voice rises to a quaver on the bridge of A-side “True Love” (titled sardonically of course) and he belts “well it hurts so bad / just won’t go away,” it shares a common method with country music (simple, somewhat generic lyrics delivered with a force that renders them mysteriously powerful), but it doesn’t really sound like country music.
The cast of characters on Tony the Bookie presents… is a veritable who’s who of Boston rock, featuring members and former members of Drug Rug, Faces on Film, Hallelujah the Hills, Keys to the Streets of Fear, Broken River Prophet, and Bane (yes, that Bane, but a long time ago), all of them lending their instrumental expertise and raw voices to a wonderfully warm, analog recording done at a Medford studio called The Soul Shop, and resulting in a record that nods back to the expertise of studio musicians in bygone days. The musicianship on these tracks isn’t flashy, but the band, composed mainly of Elio Deluca, Patrick Grenham, Nick Branigan, and Eric Provonsil, with plenty of special guests, hits every song with the looseness of musicians who are completely as home on their instruments and the tightness required to keep everything propulsive and fiery.
“True Love” is a clear single, the poppiest and hookiest of all the songs on the album (which is incidentally available for free at the Bookie website). The song takes its time to expand over a simple acoustic guitar progression. Gradually adding coiled drum fills and dreamy slide guitar, yet still making space for Confalone’s low croon, which always seems to stand on end with secret tensions. The first line is perfectly devastating mood-setter: I woke up all alone in the third year of our love. The ratcheting up of intensity on the aforementioned bridge, after two minutes of verses, is just perfect, with the vocals pouring right out of the keening, dissonant hurts so bad line and right into a high, consonant oooh that leads the song back into the more even keeled melancholy of the verses. Also check out that high pitched yelp in the background of the end of the first ooh, right around 2:43. This is a band of human beings playing their music in a room together, not a sequence of people adding tracks to a disembodied cloud of sound.
B-side “Rain Check” is a nasty, slow-burning 6/8 ‘fuck you’ jam, landing on the more angry side of miserable. It starts with lyrics about blocking out the light coming through the windows and pretty much just gets more pissed off from there. The lyrics on the rising verse lines pour out on top of the time in a way that reminds me strangely of Harry Nilsson, and the recurring “I’ll take a rain check baby” is a perfectly dry put down. The whole song makes a perfect soundtrack for that point in a break up where heartbreak starts to curdle into anger, and I anticipate, the next time I find myself in that situation, getting drunk and howling along with the choruses. The sound of the whole band wailing on those high climaxes on the bridge is enough to send shivers down your spine.
Tony the Bookie and company have put together an album that carries on the booze-soaked misery of the best old country music while filling out that archetypal sound with their own inventions and idiosyncrasies. It’s the way any music that takes inspiration from older genres (and who doesn’t?) should be made, full of respect and love for the old sounds without any boring attempts at emulation. It’s people like this who understand that the best homage to the great music of the past is to keep building on it, to make it your own like all those great musicians did themselves.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem054/01 True Love.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem054/02 Rain Check.mp3