Band of Annuals plays pure, roots-based country music that melds wending pedal steel, harmonica and flits of Wurlitzer with literate, complex rhyme schemes filled with photorealistic imagery shot in tones of regret and perseverance. It's some of the best music to come from a genre that often feels long-toothed at age 20. As might be expected from their latest album's title, Let Me Live, the best songs are those that wrestle with the specter of death and its companion, the yearn for love. "The Ballad of Casey Jones" is beautiful, as is "Don't Let Me Die." "Blood on My Shirt" though, is the jewel, providing one of the more gripping post-war portraits ever set to song. "I don't know how I ever got here, been against this war / a blindfold stretched ear to ear, as I hear them yell out the call / 'Boys, steady your rifles high / use a steady eye / put that bullet right through his heart / let us all watch him die.'"
"Blood on My Shirt" isn't an anti-war song, though. It's about vanished love, about how even survival is bittersweet in its wake. "Giving your heart is suicide," singer Jay Henderson concludes, "but this time it kept me alive."
Alt Country -- like its roots at the birth of both country and (to a lesser extent) punk -- hasn't vanished completely. It never could. The form is too perfectly melded to its subjects. The pedal steel is a faultless pair for the alcoholism, despair and defeat of the dust-swept West. The twanging harmonies, especially when paired, create the kind of aesthetic beauty that makes peeling away layers of pain bearable. It's easier to look at the wreck of your life when the soundtrack is sung by a spry tenor (in this case, Henderson) and a powerful alto (vocalist/keyboardist Jeremi Hanson).
In addition to playing a symbol of alt country's nadir, there's a chance Band of Annuals may be the genre's ticket back to a state of grace (or at least prominence). In addition to coverage in No Depression, the band is currently on the cover of Slug Magazine, a regional music and sports magazine that occasionally acts as a bellwether for national musical hipness (the mag wrote about the Raveonettes, Rilo Kiley and Nekromantix before almost anyone else did).
What alt country lacks is a scene. Its remnants are scattered and isolated. Single names. Band of Annuals is the kind of band, like those pioneers from almost 20 years ago, that's good enough that a movement could be unified around it. If anyone is going to acquaint a new generation of angry yearners to the plaint of pure country, these guys have a good shot.
Band of Annuals with Kid Theodore and the Globes at Caterina Winery on Tuesday, May 13, at 8 pm. $6. Call 328-5069.