Dirty Little Betty's: Back Yard Carnival Album Review
As we're all well aware, I pretty much hate just about fucking everything. That being said, the new album from The Dirty Little Betty’s is a record I most certainly don't hate. In fact, I actually dig the ever-loving shit out of it. It sounds like something out of a carnival employee’s acid-influenced night terror. It's as if some piece of forgotten calliope music had carnal relations with a gypsy waltz and dumped the resultant child at the door of yet another, and completely different, carnival employee. If it seems as if I'm poking a bit of fun at them here, it's because I am. Wait for the patented aside...
There's an unwritten code among the men and women that make their money playing in bands and living out their lives in vans, especially the ones that know each other as friends instead of merely casual acquaintances. I believe part of it comes from being in ridiculously close quarters with your friends under living conditions that most sane and "normal" type folks would consider inhumane. The tension can get so high between you that constantly fucking with each other over any and every single thing you can find to fuck with each other over is the only way you could even hope to blow off enough steam to maintain what minute and ragged scraps of your sanity you're lucky enough have left. Shortly said, if we're not making fun of each other, it's a fair bet that we don't really like each other. Now, back to these carousel riding bastards...
Backyard Carnival is one of those rare first albums that doesn't feel like a first album at all. All of the songs in all of their infinitely quirky wonder manage to seamlessly and effortlessly translate from their humble beginnings in Clinton Avery Tharp's living room to the cold and unforgiving digital slate. It would have been very easy to screw the proverbial pooch when recording these songs given their rhythmic complexity and lyrical zaniness, but each tune stands as a shining and well-articulated example of musical cohesion at its finest. They all have distinct personalities that are instantly recognizable to the listener, a fact that gives each song its own little niche in the listener's mind, yet the album as a whole doesn't feel the least bit cluttered. The instrumentation and the musicians playing them bind the individual songs together into a single album that flows with a smoothness some bands strive to find their entire careers, and that few ever actually do.
Clinton Avery Tharp, lead singer and predominant songwriter for the Dirty Little Betty's, is soaked from head to toe in good old-fashioned theatricality. The man's wardrobe is enough to make a seasoned costume mistress hang her head in shame, and his doll collection is enough to make the daughter of said costume mistress weep, wail, and gnash her pre-adolescent teeth. Tharp has amassed a traveling treasure trove of rotating kitsch and stage props that adorn the stage at every Betty's performance, another peculiarity that only lends to their aura of intrigue. These are not just a handful of guys that play music together, they're characters in a colorfully bizarre narrative that extends well beyond the bounds of the bar, a story that listeners are politely forced into pondering on whether they want to or not. It's the kind of stuff that turns fans into followings.
The title track is a literal circus of sound, an upbeat and nearly wacky introduction to the world of a twenty-eight-year-old kid that (thankfully) never quite grew up. It also showcases the Betty's less-than-traditional instrumentation, a sound both fueled and driven by Sam "Banjo" Hochenauer's rhythmically capricious banjo style. Like most people, the sound of a banjo being played generally makes me want to repeatedly stab my own eardrums with freshly sharpened number two pencils.
(Side Note: Another of those unwritten rules of musician types is that banjos are lame and undesirable instruments played by lame and undesirable asshats, regardless of how good they can be made to sound in the proper hands)
Hochenauer's style of banjo picking is bizarrely aurally gratifying, and the ease with which he weaves himself into the songs is as impressive of a feat as it is effective. His parts provide a perfect counterbalance to Tharp's rhythm guitar, and the melding of these two tones is at the core of what makes this album a joy to listen to. Sam Banjo is also responsible for the bulk of the harmony vocals on this record and manages to slide along Tharp's main lines with comfortable ease. Vocal harmony is my favorite sonic element when it comes to recorded music, and the harmony may be my favorite thing about this record next to the actual quality of the songwriting.
David Bruster is one of my favorite guitar players that I've ever had the pleasure of sharing a stage with. His solos are blistering and raw, and his presence on the Betty's album is wonderfully palpable. Bruster plays every part as if he may never play it again and he pulls notes from a fret board like a hand fisherman pulls catfish from their holes underwater. He plays with fucking guts and his tone never ceases to amaze and astound every other guitar player within ear shot.
Rounding out the ensemble is Scotty Buxton, a.k.a Scotty B on drums and percussion, Andy Adams on bass and guitar, and Jonny Martin on keys. Scotty B used to drum for the Red Dirt Rangers, a group I’m sure you’ve probably heard of unless you’re not an Oklahoman and/or have been living under a rock for the past two decades. He currently drums for the Bettys as well as his own group the Electric Okie Test. His time spent with the Rangers gave him a keen sense of adapting to the randomness and insanity of songwriters, an ability that no doubt comes in handy following along with Tharp’s patent-pending time signature switcheroos.
I know “switcheroos” isn’t a word. Neither are all those goddamn emoji’s everyone seems intent on constantly fucking using in every damn communique they send, but it hasn’t stopped them from doing so. Therefore, it fucking stays.
Andy Adams is an accomplished and wizard-like songwriter in his own…well, in his own right, and I understand he had some co-writes on this record, as well as his bass and guitar credits. As per usual, he fucking rules. Layer in Martin’s lush pads and melancholically melodic organ parts, and this record is about as full up as the Okfuskee county jail on a Friday night without all the homemade juice carton hooch and cheating at cards.
Since early last year, I've been spending a good deal of time around all of the Dirty Little Betty's. Some or all of them gather at Clinton Tharp's home, a place filled with more dolls and mannequins and stupid hats and wacky sunglasses than you can shake a whole closet full of Red Dirt Success sticks at. There's usually someone playing some kind of instrument, either in the house or, when the weather is good, the back yard, and beers are being consumed en masse. Most of the songs on Backyard Carnival were born out of these impromptu musical mashups, usually beginning life as a ridiculous line or phrase made up on the spot and then coming of age in one of Tharp's notebooks. To finally hear them recorded is quite an experience for me, like watching a good friend's weirdo kids stumble across the graduation stage after seeing them grow up while I was hanging out with their parents. In spite of being strange, little awkward things when they began their lives, they eventually grew up to be strange, big awkward things that somehow managed to become kick ass adults.
From funnel cakes to cocaine powered transsexuals to the possibility of being David Bowie's bastard child, there is no ground upon which the Betty's fear to tread. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this album is that none of the songs, regardless of subject matter, feel the least bit trite. The title track is a song about the fact that Tharp literally wants his own carnival in his backyard, a goal which he's not far from literally achieving given all the random shit that ends up back there. Backyard Carnival gives way to "Magical Mystics", a dark, Gypsy-inspired dirge that's ambient, mysterious, and downright creepy. "Mystics" is the first single (if a single is what you want to call it) and already has a video which I'll embed with this post because it kicks a lot of ass. It's a visually stunning piece of work, filmed out at Bob Moore's maniacal mansion-of-a-home, most of which Bob built himself out of random stuff he's accumulated over the years. "Rubber Boot Boys" is vying for the position of my favorite song on the record. It's a rock and roll tune, the subject matter of which reminds me of one of my favorite NOFX songs "The 'Brews". The two songs sound nothing alike, but the sentiment and theme are quite similar. Both songs are about a couple of rowdy dudes causing a ruckus, and both songs make you want to crank the volume to eleven and go fuck up the downtown area. There are more tunes on "Backyard Carnival", but I'm not going to sit here and cram my opinion of each of them down your throat. Suffice it to say, this record is as solid of a freshman attempt as any I've ever heard, and it's a record you should have in your personal collection...like, right now.
Oklahoma City is host to a plethora of musicians and songwriters and bands, all wanting your attention and trying to stand apart from each other, but the Dirty Little Betty's are a cut above the rest. They have a twisted and mangled future ahead of them, and you're all going to want to stand in line to bear witness. Don't believe me? What the hell do I care? Go get this album. You'll be pissed off that you didn't when you finally and inevitably do. Still don't believe me? Still don't care.