Lee Bains III is the prodigal son, raised on the Good Book Jesus, corrupted by punk-rock and working out his own adult reconciliations between the two. It’s the blessing and curse of being Southern. From Jerry Lee Lewis to Tyler Keith (Preacher’s Kids), and all the way back to Robert Johnson, artists, black and white alike, have been torn between Saturday night and Sunday morning; ever since moonshine and lusty women first presented a challenge to the Christian life. Crap - that was probably in the fifth Century; in southern … France, or somewhere. Hell, I’d have to get out my History books. Like I say, it’s nothing’ new. Bains and his Alabama boys, the Glory Fires, aren’t reinventing the wheel, just grinding the sucker. And it yields a great ride.
Even if there’s nothing new under the sun, each generation and every new artist has the opportunity to put its and his or her own spin on the eternal conflicts. On There is a Bomb in Gilead, the Glory Fires debut, Bains brings the sensibilities of a literary education to his talks with Jesus and his hallelujahs to Joey Ramone. I don’t say this just because he makes literary references, like the one to Walker Percy (“go ahead take my Walker Percy, go ahead and take the t-shirt by brother got when he saw the Ramones”), but because his melancholy and moral musings are offspring of Faulkner and O’Connor’s world. “Everything You Took,” the ditty with the Percy/Ramones lyric, establishes the artist’s lifestyle essentials: rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts and books. And essential they may as well be since he’s losing his gal. He’s clearly hanging on to a thread, clinging to “every little hope that you give me.” But the lady sounds to me like she’s moved on.
The singer’s wrestling with virtue resounds in “Ain’t No Stranger,” rhyming contrition and perdition, by God – and reminding the almighty that he may be prodigal, but he’ s “no stranger.” Bains and lead guitarist Matt Wurtele slash through the Willie Mitchell groove with guitars that are more Keith Richards and Ron Asheton than anything Memphis or Muscle Shoals. “Centreville” sustains the rocking pace. It’s Skynyrd after the Pistols (and Some Girls), Bains spitting out lyrics about guys who are “over educated and under-employed.” Perfect, it captures the new Birmingham, or hell – Boston, as the United States becomes the new Spain. Imagine Tony Joe White amped up and all pissed off. That’s what Bains sounds like on “Centreville.”
Bains works his connection to the lords of the garage in “Righteous, Ragged Songs” (‘say a prayer for punk rock, and say a prayer for me’) like a man who believes that there just might be some soul saving potential in the devil’s music, music, like gospel, that can surely be righteous and ragged. The Dixie-punk of “Red, Red Dirt of Home” neatly paraphrases country classic (you know, “Green, Green Grass of Home, the Curly Putnam Jr. warhorse recorded by Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare, Tom Jones and your cousin Daryl); akin to a digital age version of “The Letter,” Bains reflects on having his “momma and daddy on speed dial.” Wurtele’s “Honky Tonk Women” guitar carries him home. Here, Bains effortlessly strikes the Southern grit and groove that John Hiatt labors to achieve.
Simmering laments like “Reba” and “Choctaw Summer” rock country like country rocked before it became the fucking Eagles with fiddles. I hear the ghost of real, honest to God country singers like John Anderson in these tunes. But I also hear a band that sounds like they just might have listened to a Richard Thompson record or two. “Roebuck Parkway,” waxes nostalgic for a childhood idyll, and features some flat lovely acoustic picking. Wurtele breaks out some Wayne Perkins style licks for “Opelika,” Bains slyly referencing Johnny and June’s “Jackson” as he locates the boys position (‘3,000 miles east of L.A., 1,000 miles south of N.Y.C.’).
“Magic City Stomp” is probably more fun live. It’s a chant wrapped in an instrumental workout that’s as much MC5 as it is M.G.’s. In the context of the album it sounds like filler, or a fun b-side.
The title cut references a youthful malapropism of Bains’ (he heard the gospel soother “Balm in Gilead” as “Bomb in Gilead” as a churchgoing kid). The Glory Fires strip things down to simplicity and soul. Bains stretches out phrases, wringing out nuance like the great soul stirring singers. There are some fine singers operating in the Southern (garage) rock idiom (the twin sons of the Oblivians, Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright come to mind – Patterson Hood, too), but few make you think - damn, I could listen to this son of a gun sing James Carr and O.V. Wright songs.
Oh, I didn't work in references to bassist Justin Colburn and drummer Blake Williamson in graceful rock critic style. They kick ass.