After the breakup of Los Angeles’ retro-country-rocking Long Ryders, Kentucky-born singer/guitarist Sid Griffin (also the author of a Gram Parsons biography) and the band’s drummer, Greg Sowders, formed the Coal Porters with English bassist Ian Thomson. A few years later, Thomson returned to London with Griffin, who married ex-Dream Academy reed player Kate St. John and continued his all-American recording career from a foreign perch.
Rebels Without Applause was first released in Australia as an EP, gaining tracks (including “Sittin’ in an Isle of Palms,” recorded at a ’90 BBC session) for its nine-song English issue. While sticking to the Byrds-inflected hybrid that originally sparked the Long Ryders (and, as those groups generally did, eschewing the obvious sound of pedal steel), the Coal Porters make a poor showing on their debut. Griffin’s not an overpowering singer or tunesmith (lyrics are a special problem), and this project serves straight to his weaknesses. The encouraging exceptions are the long, rocking “Roll Columbia Roll” and “Rhythm and Blue Angel,” a surging singalong inexplicably preceded by a bitter phone call from an unidentified musician with a grudge.
Assembling tracks by various lineups (variously including St. John, Sowders, Thomson, ex-Green on Red organist Chris Cacavas and ex-Rockpiler Billy Bremner), the full-length Land of Hope and Crosby provides further evidence that Griffin is more adept at rocking than twanging. A horn section led by St. John kicks “Imperial Beach” into a soulful cool-jerk; the excellent “What Am I Doin’ (In This Thing Called Love)” doses up on the Anglo-American roots sound, prompting Bremner to add a corking guitar solo. An organ sound straight outta the Augie Meyers school of Texas border fun spices up the peppy romantic enthusiasm of “What About Tomorrow.” But the Byrdsy tendencies of the flat-footed “Death Like a Valentine” amount to little more than 12-string flourishes, an incongruous pop bounce spoils the tear-in-my-beer country stylings of “Everybody’s Fault but Mine” and neither pedal steel nor oboe can make peace with the old-timey acoustic heart of “You Can See Them There.” Of the country-rockers, only “Windy City” gets the balance right, giving the Nashville-styled ode to Chicago an English ’60s art-rock twist with an oboe part that actually works.
Other than a couple of sodden ballads (including Gram Parsons’ “Apple Tree”) that wash it in sickly soapsuds, Los London displays Griffin’s prudent dedication to the Coal Porters’ most winnable causes: bouncy country (“Crackin’ at the Seams”), horn-powered roots rock (the Long Ryders-recalling “It Happened to Me”), heartland passion (“A Woman to Love”), Byrdsy nostalgia (“Chasing Rainbows”). His lyrics and vocals are most often good-natured and effective; the arrangements are more considered and complex than in the past. A minor pleasure to be sure, but it’s reassuring to know country-rock still has credible friends in faraway places.
A good chunk of the Long Ryders’ catalogue has been reissued in the ’90s. Frontier slapped its two titles together on a single CD as 10-5-60/Native Sons, while Griffin’s own London-based Prima label got the rights to State of Our Union (the group’s one shining commercial moment, thanks to the wretched semi-hit “Looking for Lewis and Clark”) and put it out on CD with four added rarities, including an acoustic number sung as a duet by guitarist Stephen McCarthy and Christine Collister, plus a lighthearted geographical seasonal, “Christmas in New Zealand.”