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State Champion - Send Flowers Music Album Reviews

The Midwestern band’s fourth album cleans up their “punked-up country gunk,” giving more space to Ryan Davis’ incisive, deceptively offhand lyrics.

“How many fantasies never make it past the pillow covers?” Ryan Davis sings on “My Over, My Under,” the opener of Send Flowers, the fourth album by State Champion. They’re hard to Google and nearly as hard to categorize; “cowpunk” and “alt-country” don’t quite do them justice. James Jackson Toth, of their friends’ band Wooden Wand, came closest: “punked-up country gunk.” Solid in their sonic integrity, on this outing State Champion remove a little more of the gunk to give space to Davis’ rangy ruminations, delivered mostly in spoken word that gives way to an occasional wail.

The band formed 10 years ago in Chicago when the core members—singer/songwriter/guitarist Davis, drummer Sal Cassato, bassist Mikie Poland, and violinist Sabrina Rush—were in art school. Now they’re spread out over several towns and states. They recorded their third album, 2015’s Fantasy Error, in the fields and the farmhouse of Paul Oldham’s Kentucky studio; ambient sounds of crickets bled into the mix. Davis is based in Louisville, where he runs the label Sophomore Lounge (the label’s releases also include records by Spider Bags and Wooden Wand) and has hosted the terrific festival Cropped Out almost every fall since 2010, skipping a few years when State Champion have been on tour—the main time the band members see each other these days. They continue to book their own gigs, playing house shows and DIY spaces; they remain committed to a name that yields a hilariously wide range of Internet results—choices pointed toward a life in music that isn't defined by others’ expectations. They’re old-soul enough not to be bothered with careerism, nimble enough to embrace the situations they encounter and make themselves at home.

The songs on Send Flowers suggest being on the road—a band of wandering troubadours picking up fine guest players along the way. Angel Olsen guested on their second record and Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin joined in on Fantasy Error; this outing brings Edith Frost on vocals and Christopher May on pedal steel. Star-chart the album and you’d likely peg its origin to some after-midnight hour, gas-station coffee mugs filling the cup holders of a van, when the only two or three people still awake let fly strange, salient thoughts: riffs on lives hidden beyond the lights of the highway.

Silver Jews are among State Champion’s obvious kin, and Send Flowers’ packaging duly comes bearing a blurb from David Berman: “If Bob Dylan was funny, if Tom Waits was relevant, Ryan might not be peerless at what he does best, which is writing large gregarious circles around his pitiful colleagues in the field.” Humor equips the dreamiest of these songs with necessary gravity. Before a recent State Champion show I’d been re-reading the poet James Tate’s The Ghost Soldiers, and the feeling of those poems, which swerve between absurd and realistic encounters told by wry, profound narrators, shares an affinity with Davis’ plainspoken lyrics, which are more deliberate than they appear. His lines flow in a deceptively offhand lilt, though the structures are more ornate than they seem. On “Death Preferences,” keyboard and strings create a slow, swooning drift, a melodic mask for words that sneak up on you in staccato percussive pauses; Frost and Davis harmonize over May’s lonesome, yearning pedal steel and multiple tempo switches in “When I Come Through,” a brash ballad of a wanderer’s promise to return (“Unplug the stars from the sky when I come through”). Most songs hover around six or seven minutes long: the shortest, the lovely, heartbroken lament “If You Don’t Show Me,” explodes in an excellent twang-and-fuzz guitar solo at its finish. With just seven tracks, the album leaves you wanting more.

But that’s the nature of the road, too. Travel the country enough and you become a witness to tiny changes imperceptible to people who live in those places. Davis’ narrator articulates the shifts palpably in the album’s closer, “Stonehenge Band Blues,” about a fictitious blues group who plays to “Southern Ohio’s scaredy boys and hobby-kit glue girls of now”: “What happened to all the country boys/The honky tonks are filled with boneheads/The art museums are full of noise.” The lament comes underscored by the reassurance of being played by an actual band that remains true to the idiosyncratic sound it has forged. “What happens at Stonehenge stays at Stonehenge,” goes the refrain. It might be an acknowledgement of the things in life that will go unexplained for the ages to come. Send Flowers is a tribute to those mysteries—to the small, vital impressions, and the music left in their wake.

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