Tempe, Arizona’s Refreshments (no relation to the Swedish rockabilly outfit of the same name featuring Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner) briefly played court jester in the ’90s roots-rock kingdom. The quartet (singer/guitarist Roger Clyne, guitarist Brian Blush, bassist Buddy Edwards and drummer Dusty Denham) garnered intense local support through zany live performances and a self-released album. Signing to Mercury, the band hit paydirt with the single “Banditos” (“everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people”), but fell from favor after a lackluster second album. They are now primarily known for performing the theme to TV’s King of the Hill.
Wheelie unveils the Refreshments in a more ragged environment than the group would settle into, but it’s essentially the same Southwestern country-rock that they continued to deliver. (In fact, they re-recorded all of the songs save one for their major label debut. The leftover, “Psychosis,” later appeared on the soundtrack to An American Werewolf in Paris.) The EP contains two of those songs (“Girly” and “Down Together”) plus two new tracks, “Una Soda,” which would resurface on their third release, and “Los Angeles.”
The Refreshments recorded Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy (the title no doubt an homage to the Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy) with new drummer P.H. Naffah and producer Clif Norrell (Inspiral Carpets, Skunk Anansie). Despite a tendency toward relaxed Americana akin to the Gin Blossoms, the disc contains an abundance of tension and hostility. More importantly, a resounding sense of humor permeates the best tracks. “Blue Collar Suicide,” with Clyne’s rushed, breathless vocals, literally cracks with excitement. “Banditos” comes off like a rural Presidents of the United States of America. “European Swallow” displays Clyne’s keen storytelling ability as well as Blush’s skilled playing. “Down Together” is catchy Cracker-like pop that pokes fun at the hometown scene (“We could all wear ripped-up clothes / And pretend that we were Dead Hot Workshop”). The band tries reggae in “Mekong,” while “Mexico” (which was titled “B.O.B.A.” on Wheelie) is electrified mariachi. On the other hand, “Don’t Wanna Know” and “Interstate” expose the group’s soft, dull side.
“Tributary Otis,” which starts off The Bottle & Fresh Horses with folky harmonica and an encouraging beat, introducing a smoother, gentler Refreshments. Producer Paul Leary (of the Butthole Surfers) surprisingly opted to remove the grit from a crew that desperately needed it. “Heaven or the Highway Out of Town” and “Good Year” are peppy little numbers, but it might as well be .38 Special playing them. “Wanted” captures a portion of the former glory and “Dolly” actually conjures up some punky spunk, but “Buy American” and “Sin Hombre” are just plain boring. That leaves the C&W weeper “Horses” with all the character the rest of the album lacks.
After the Refreshments split, Clyne recruited Naffah, bassist Danny White and guitarists Scott Johnson (Gin Blossoms) and Steve Larson (Dead Hot Workshop) to form the Peacemakers. Honky Tonk Union proves that Clyne’s narrative skills are undiminished in the beautiful “Green And Dumb” (“I haunt her house from the outside / Watch her bake cornbread and talk on the phone”) and the old-school country tale of “Jack Vs. Jose.” His delivery in the slow-moving “City Girls” evokes both Lyle Lovett and Bruce Springsteen, but he still falls back on a Don Henley vibe that can hurt a song like the otherwise inoffensive title track.
The live Real to Reel showcases the band’s savvy at playing fun but generally tame rock ‘n’ roll. It includes three Refreshments songs (“Horses,” Mekong” and “Una Soda”) just to be safe.
Sonoran Hope and Madness offers a few different styles to avoid the roots-rock redundancy: the title track tries flamenco to good effect; “Colorblind Blues” is a blues-rocker that lets Clyne scream a bit; and “Sleep Like a Baby” wears bluegrass well. The best development is Clyne’s lean towards Tex-Mex odes like “The Ashes of San Miguel,” where he displays a passion for material not unlike Marty Robbins. The Peacemakers remain a dependable troupe, but they lack energy to give the music any impact.
The band (a quartet following Scott Johnson’s return to the re-activated Gin Blossoms) located that energy on ¡Americano! and applied it to some of Clyne’s best songs. The Peacemakers bring real urgency to “I Don’t Need Another Thrill,” “God Gave Me a Gun” and especially the title track. They take a bluesier approach on “Loco to Stay Sane” and “Your Name on a Grain of Rice” to excellent effect. “Switchblade” includes one of Clyne’s most descriptive lyrics: “They were sharp enough to stab another hole in the sky / Hard enough to make the proudest diamond sigh / Faster than the rockets on the Fourth of July / Strong and cruel enough to make a statue of Mary cry.” “Counterclockwise” and “Mexican Moonshine” (the latter complete with a mariachi horn section) are good lost-weekend fun. The CD includes a hidden track, “A Little Hung Over You.”
With Nick Scropos replacing bassist Danny White, the Peacemakers followed the lead of many other country and roots-rock artists by recording a live album at Billy Bob’s Texas, a honky-tonk landmark in Fort Worth. The 2005 CD includes six tunes from ¡Americano!, a few from the Peacemakers’ earlier albums and six Refreshments songs, including the King of the Hill theme. The sound quality is clearer than on Real to Reel, but a little light on bass. A more overtly honky-tonk studio take on “A Little Hung Over You” (which was pretty honky-tonk to begin with) is tacked on at the end.
Released as a download-only sampler, Four Unlike Before presents acoustic renditions of “Sleep Like a Baby” and “Never Thought,” a radio station benefit recording of “Counterclockwise” and a demo of the otherwise unissued “Mexicosis.”
Clif Norrell returned to produce No More Beautiful World, bringing some extra sonic depth (and a few additional instruments) but precious little energy to the songs. On the upbeat end, “Goon Squad” (not the Elvis Costello song), “World Ain’t Gone Crazy” (not the Refreshments’ “Mexico,” from which it recycles a line or two) and “Lemons” stand out; “Hello New Day” works similar terrain, but stumbles over its lyrical clichés (“Hello blessing, hello curse / Hello cradle, hello hearse”). “Ándale” is a rewrite of “¡Americano!,” but the group doesn’t impart much of the earlier song’s bite to the newer one. The rest of this album is more laid-back, nearly on autopilot. As with the previous studio CD, a bonus DVD is included of video footage from the album’s recording sessions.
For the next album, the band spent eight days with Norrell at a beach retreat in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, where they wrote and recorded a song a day. (They also set up produced webcasts of the session yielding another bonus DVD. Guys, guys — enough with the home movies already.) The result, Turbo Ocho, replaces the preceding album’s polished production with a more direct, stripped-down sound. With little time for sonic adornment (apart from the horn section on “I Can Drink the Water” and “Mañana”), the Peacemakers rely on vigorous, enthusiastic playing — all to the songs’ good. “State of the Art,” “I Know You Know,” “Mercy” and especially “I Do” rock with more energy than anything on No More Beautiful World; “Summer Number 39” has a rustic back-porch feel; “Persephone” recasts the Greek myth over spare backing, with haunting slide guitar. The last three songs on Turbo Ocho (including a new version of “Mexicosis”) were recorded after the webcast session, but even with extra time and opportunity to indulge, Norrell and the band keep the performances focused. Maybe the Peacemakers should do this kind of recording session more often. As Clyne sings in “State of the Art,” “Had I not lost the path / I’d have never found my way.”