A twangy, beaten up guitar with the finish long since rubbed away. The fuzziest bass, with the treble knob turned right down and snapped off, and the amp buried under the floorboards. Ominous banjo. Whiny harmonica. And a puppet troupe of voices, courtesy of vocalist and certified preacher, "Lonesome Wyatt." That would be Those Poor Bastards.
Lonesome Wyatt, despite his name, is just one half of this gothic country band; the rest of the weight is carried by "The Minister", although you'll never hear his voice. On the other hand you'll hear a lot of Wyatt, alternating from low, sonorous Johnny Cash-crooning to Tom Waits-growls, and all sorts of weird hisses and deranged, ragged shrieks in between. On Hellfire Hymns you can hear death metal gurgling and gospel moans, and it's not unusual to be able to pick out two or three layers of vocals on top of each other, all in different styles.
The song lyrics are miserable across the board; there ain't no cheer to be found 'tween these record sleeves. The gothic influence is stronger on some albums than other, but at least half of their songs mention Satan or God, and often both in the same breath. The songs are sometimes mournful, sometimes sinister, and occasionally downright terrifying. They invoke the bleakness of the empty desert and the lawless Old West. These songs are grim tales of bitter men, downtrodden and God-damned. It's true that the gimmick wears thin at times, but Those Poor Bastards make up for it with some genuinely good music, and when those good songs turn up you end up forgetting about these two guys playing cowboy and start worrying about getting the fuck out of these woods before night falls and the screaming starts.
Country Bullshit (EP) (2005)
Songs of Desperation (2005)
Hellfire Hymns (2007)
The Plague (2008)
Satan Is Watching (2008)
Abominations (EP) (2009)
Black Dog Yodel 7” (w/ Skelton) (2009)
Gospel Haunted (2010)
Gospel Outtakes 7" (2010)
Country Bullshit, their first effort, was passable, but I heard it after I knew what they were capable of, and it just couldn't compare. Songs Of Desperation came out only one month later, leading me to believe the Country Bullshit material had been lying around for a while by the time it got released. By the time Hellfire Hymns came out, they had figured out exactly what sound they were going for but also had some opportunity to play around, and I'd call it their best work. Satan Is Watching is nearly as good - it's a loud and rowdy one - but not quite as spooky, and that's what drew me to them in the first place. Nothing on there makes my skin crawl like "John Henry Gonna" and "In The Backwoods".
The Abominations EP is a bit of a detour. It's only about 20 minutes long and is very organ-heavy, like 2008's The Plague. It's reminiscent of the pre-Bastards solo project Lonesome Wyatt and the Holy Spooks, with his album Sabella. The subject matter is all ghosts and scary tree branches; it's practically a Halloween album. It's too bad it ends so soon, but perhaps it's for the best with a concept like that. With their newest album, Gospel Haunted, they've stuck with the organ but brought in some truly raucous banjo to go with it, and both the lyrics and music focuses more on their doomsday-preacher conceit than before.
If you're a Tom Waits fan (especially of the albums Blood Money and Bone Machine) and you've always liked the country western aesthetic but couldn't stand the music, you owe it to yourself to hear Hellfire Hymns or Satan Is Watching. It might seem a bit silly at first, but Those Poor Bastards will wipe that smirk off your face before the first track is through, and maybe kick you in the ribs for making it in the first place. Hallelujah.