Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers - Beyond fangs and thorns

Like its namesake, the old west sidearm, the Peacemakers' music minds that geometric line beyond which the romance of risk and chance yields to the ruin of just one step across. Lead Peacemaker Roger Clyne is a storyteller, and his lyrics breathe with their characters' attraction and ultimate resistance to self-destruction. Arizona born and bred, Clyne began writing songs at age 17, when he joined a friend's band. "I wasn't a very good guitarist, but I seemed to have a knack for songwriting," he says. Some years later, Clyne became lead singer and songwriter for the Refreshments, a sonic cousin of the Phoenix area's Meat Puppets and Gin Blossoms. The Refreshments' jangly pop topped with a mild salsa of local content earned them a Mercury contract leading to two full-length CDs and coast-to-coast tours of midsize venues. Not long after that band split in 1998, Clyne and Refreshments drummer P.H. Naffah took a weeks-long backpack sabbatical near Clyne's family ranch in southern Arizona. "I found out that I really identify with a certain piece of land," says Clyne. "It's indispensable -- I begin to wither spiritually if I can't reconnect....It was a communion, a way to re-settle myself, to go back to the drawing board to find myself." He acknowledges, however: "The desert is beautiful, but you have to remember everything out there has fangs and thorns." Clyne and Naffah returned with enough new material for a record. Naffah built a studio in his spare room, where the two were joined by former Gin Blossoms guitarist Scotty Johnson, bassist Danny Blanco (a Nashville refugee), and ex-Dead Hot Workshop lead guitarist Stevie Larsen. The result, the Peacemakers' debut disc Honky Tonk Union, was hot enough with the Refreshments' following to debut at #1 on Billboard's Internet sales chart when the Peacemakers offered it online in October. That loyal following has guaranteed packed venues at Peacemakers shows in their home state. Sincere showmanship is a hallmark of their performances, but what makes the band is Clyne's unquestionable knack for writing catchy and memorable songs, hooked with the well-placed tricks of talent -- a key change here, a dynamic shift there, a poetic turn of phrase isolated in a bridge. The lyrics are rich with colors, flavors and biases known best to native Arizonans. These come through most stridently, and amusingly, in "Jack vs. Jose", a tense and perilous dialogue with a Memphis barkeep who tries to set the narrator up with bourbon, when Tequila is what his Mexican-border-bred system craves. Long, empty highways under endless skies evoke metaphors for speed on "Beautiful Disaster", an invitation for a drive on the wild side reminiscent of Springsteen's "Thunder Road". The song also features one of Clyne's best lines: "How I love to see those angels fighting over you/Heaven knows they left me long ago." Clyne's characters, while not losers, are not winners, either. They are fighters, against convention, against unseen inevitabilities larger than themselves, and occasionally against their own better natures. "Honky Tonk Union" blesses the insanity of a marriage in a bar. "City Girls" pulses with self-knowledge that desert roots, deep as a Saguaro's, leave a guy ill-equipped to compete with the bright lights of Hollywood. "Tell Your Mama" is a teeth-clenched weighing of the good life vs. the old life. "Never Thought" is a rueful but resigned reflection on choices leading to the place where "I dream in color/but I live in black and white." Peacemakers songs reveal Clyne's long admiration for those of Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Cracker's David Lowery, as well as some small debts to Violent Femme Gordon Gano and Plimsouls-era Peter Case. Refreshments fans will notice that little besides momentum was lost in Clyne's transition to the Peacemakers. But with more freedom to explore his westward look, the band is bound to find new fans on that far horizon.