Suspect beef

Carquinez Straits takes its alt-indie-classic-country-rock influences to heart

The shortest route between Crockett and Vallejo, left to right: Brian Grattidge, Greg Hain, Jed Brewer, Mark Searle.

The shortest route between Crockett and Vallejo, left to right: Brian Grattidge, Greg Hain, Jed Brewer, Mark Searle.

9 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at Old Ironsides, 1901 10th St., $7. CD release party opening for Red Star Memorial and California Oranges.

It is surprisingly difficult to cubbyhole the music of Carquinez Straits—surprisingly because, on first listen, the band’s music is about as straightforward as music comes: a couple of jangly guitars, pedal steel, bass, drums and vocals. It’s music with a strong beat—you can dance to it—and the listener’s immediate thought might be to place it in the alt-country rock bin along with Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks. But on second listen, something strange begins to fade in from the background, and the listener has the sensation that Carquinez Straits is perhaps not what it appears to be.

What Carquinez Straits appears to be is important, because it sets the foundation for the band and its music, and ultimately for the divergence that marks its ultimate originality. The divergence arises when the listener first begins to notice the strange darkness that creeps into Carquinez Straits’ songs. Take, for example, the aptly titled “Oatmeal Stout Man,” a swinger ostensibly about a drinking binge—a perfectly acceptable topic for any kind of country song, alt or traditional. But the chorus of the song sounds more like 1969-era Pink Floyd than 1990-era Uncle Tupelo; distorted vocals and feedback wail in unison with fuzz guitars as the lyrics turn from banal to pitch black.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Carquinez Straits namechecks a wide variety of alt-country acts and a slew of indie-rock bands as influences. Uncle Tupelo is named early on, as is local (Davis) act Thin White Rope, the classic rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and the Band, and indie-rock pioneers Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., to name a few. Frontman Jed Brewer’s vocal style leans far toward the indie-rock canon—a sort of lazy, ever-so-slightly flat but somehow still harmonious drawling in the vein of John Doe. It’s country and indie at the same time.

Brewer formed Carquinez Straits in part due to the uncertain nature of his other band, Harvester, once signed to Geffen Records. With members scattered over two states, Harvester’s periodical hiatuses left Brewer with lots of songs and nobody to play them with. So he formed a new band. Pulling together Greg Hain (Chance the Gardener, the Toadmortons) on bass, guitarist Mark Searle (Forty Fingers, Blind Illusion), and drummer Brian Grattidge (Beatrice Nine, among others), Brewer’s new project went to the studio to record its debut, an 11-track alt-indie-country-rock gem titled The Flat Earth Just Got Flatter.

Released this month by Lather Records, a co-op label Brewer has operated for 10 years, The Flat Earth Just Got Flatter is a straightforward but nonetheless surprising release. Circa ’60s uzz guitars rise from the high lonesome sound of pedal steel; country swing beats thump back into straight four and then veer again into swing time. And the lyrics cover, in the band’s own words, “popular themes such as geography, petty revenge, nutrition, secret wars, suburban sprawl and suspect beef.” It’s a wide variety of topics, and one that reflects Brewer’s preoccupations as much as it does his wit.

The band has been together for about three years now, and with the CD release and a slot at the Hotel Utah’s famous “Brokedown Opry,” a showcase for alt-country bands, acoustic and Americana acts, it appears to be gaining steam. But Brewer is not one to be overly optimistic. “The plan is to keep recording and playing regionally,” he says. “It’s a pretty low-key band.” Brewer pauses for a moment, and then adds, “We’ve had record deals and aspirations, but none of us have those kinds of aspirations anymore. We’re all in our mid-30s and just want to be creative.”

Fans of Forever Goldrush, Grub Dog and the Amazing Sweethearts and Jackpot take heed: This is music you will find singing in your car days after the show has passed. And The Flat Earth Just Got Flatter makes for some good listening.