I first heard of the Minus 5 because I read somewhere that perennially underrated guitarist Peter Buck played with them (Buck’s day job is playing in an obscure little band named R.E.M. who, say what you will about their recent work, managed one of the most difficult tasks in all of music history: being awesome in the 1980s.). At the time, I was playing music genealogist, running down every band my favorite artists had ever had anything to do with. This endeavor, quite fruitfully, led me to Uncle Tupelo and the Minus 5. And I learned that the Minus 5 are not merely Peter Buck’s side-gig; they are, by their own admission, a “loose creative collective/serious drinking association” and also one of Scott McCaughey’s two full-time bands (the other being the Young Fresh Fellows, who also released an album this year called I Think This Is. They were also name-checked on the 1990 They Might Be Giants song “Twisting”: “She doesn’t want her Young Fresh Fellows tape back/ there’s not a lot of things that she’ll take back”) and they are slowly piling up evidence that McCaughey is one of the most underrated songwriters working today.
In a Pacific Northwest music scene that his crowded with awesome talent (like Everclear! I kid, I kid. Is Everclear still a band? I sure hope not), McCaughey seems to be that awesome guy that all your favorite bands know but you’ve never heard of. However, if you’ve seen R.E.M. live since (I believe) New Adventures in Hi-Fi, you’ve seen McCaughey on stage. He’s the guitar player who looks eerily like Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. And now, lucky you, you’ve heard of Scott McCaughey because I’m here telling you all about him.
For the Minus 5, McCaughey usually plays with Peter Buck and drummer Bill Rieflin (who is now officially a member of R.E.M., I believe. He’s played live drums for them since Bill Berry retired and he did all the drumming on last year’s pretty-decent Accelerate) and whoever else he can find. For Killingsworth, the new Minus 5 album, he’s recruited several Decemberists (including John Moen for the drums) and some backup singers credited as the She Bee Gees. So Killingsworth, named for a street in Portland, is a very northwesty album and just looking at the cover (while sitting here in hundred degree heat) makes me ache for rain and clean air and Ninkasi beer and… Oregon. I’m kinda sad Killingsworth didn’t come packaged with a free microbrew (probably a legal thing, I’m not sure). But I’m no hometown referee (witness my hatred of Portlanders Everclear and the Dandy Warhols) and I’m not gonna give the Minus 5 a free pass just because they made me miss my favorite state.
On musical merits alone, Killingsworth is not only the best Minus 5 record (with Down with Wilco a close second), but it is one of a handful of records this year that I’ve had to make a very concentrated effort to stop listening to. When I’m listening to stuff that I’m going to review, I usually listen to the album once and then listen to a random favorite album, sort of as a palate-cleanser. Killingsworth served as my palate-cleaner while I was wading through the We Were Promised Jetpacks album. And when I was listening to Killingsworth. See what I did there? That puts it up somewhere near Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive in my estimation. That is, it’s an album that grabs me immediately and only gets better with time (if I was still in college right now, I’d probably spend some time drinking to this album. Also, if I was still in college now, I’d be a fucking moron because I started college ten years ago this fall… shit, I’m old.)
Killingsworth is a dark, country-tinged album (country-tinged? I dunno, it’s a “mostly” countryish record – steel guitars on a lot of songs, lots of acoustic guitar, some accordion, and omnipresent female backing vocals – I just say “country-tinged” to keep from scaring off people who don’t like country), dismal in mood if not in tone, and catchy from start to finish. The album opens with the awesomely titled “Dark Hand of Contagion”, where McCaughey wastes no time establishing the mood: “your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation/ I signed the note on your nightstand:/ ‘the Dark Hand of Contagion'”. McCaughey has a very dark sense of humor that naturally lends itself to the slowly strummed, mournful songs but it really shines on some of the more upbeat tunes as well, especially my new favorite song, “I Would Rather Sacrifice You” (as in “I would rather sacrifice you/ than to miss sweet Jesus’s call”), which is the sort of song that’s just begging to be used by some humorless (and irony-immune) right-winger during election season. I’m looking at you, John Boehner (as far as I know, his last name is not pronounced “boner”, but feel free to say it that way anyhow).
As much as I love McCaughey’s songwriting (dude really has an incisive wit, but you can find that on any given Minus 5 album), I really think part of what draws me to Killingsworth so strongly is the exceedingly effective use of the She Bee Gees (my extremely hasty internet research reveals that the She Bee Gees are, apparently, a Portland-based Bee Gees tribute band made up entirely of women… and also a shady group of Freemasons who meet once a year with the Federal Reserve Board and plot the assassinations of world leaders who oppose their efforts to enslave all of humanity while simultaneously proving that Barack Obama was born in Kenya before it was… well… Kenya.) . Their harmonies lend an awesome 1970s vibe to the proceedings (in a good way – think She & Him Volume 1, which is, in my opinion, among the best albums of the 1970s) and they form a nice counterpoint to McCaughey’s nasally snark. Perhaps their greatest moment on Killingsworth comes on “Scott Walker’s Fault”, which also features a lead vocal from the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy and, if you’re like me, will send you running to the internet to find out who Scott Walker is.
Killingsworth isn’t going to sell a million copies or propel Scott McCaughey to household name status, but I’m not necessarily gonna lament that here. Part of his appeal is his (somewhat self-styled) reputation as a “wayfarer and musical enabler” (as quoted from the Minus 5’s website) – he’s a guy who can afford to do whatever he wants. On Killingsworth, he wants to lend a country twang to “incoherent yarns mostly told after midnight by highway hobos in and around Portland, Oregon,” and the result is electrifying. Mr. McCaughey, welcome to that sacred list of People I Would Totally Buy a Beer.