In 15 years as the nucleus of ever-evolving alt-country collective The Minus 5, Scott McCaughey has been offering some of music’s most illustrious names an alternative outlet from which to indulge their whims. Those through the door have included members of Wilco (resulting in 2003’s collaborative album Down With Wilco), The Posies, REM, Eels, Death Cab for Cutie, Sonic Youth, and an up-and-coming young songstress by the name of Patti Smith
It’s an impressive roster, but the only common denominator across more than dozen releases has been McCaughey himself. If Devendra Banhart is the most connected man in folk, then surely ‘McCoy’ must fancy himself as indie rock’s equivalent.
Whilst this convivial, all-comers-welcome approach no doubt looks great on his CV, it makes you wonder why The Minus 5 don’t share the heavyweight status awarded to some of their associates. Unfortunately, new album Killingsworth does little to unpick the conundrum: instead, its excellence only makes you wonder louder.
Considering the ingredients that have gone into the mix since 1993, it’s unsurprising that The Minus 5 resemble, at different times, many bands, but refreshingly, Killingsworth holds its own when put up against any of them. Here are 14 tracks that have their roots soaked in country moonshine, but sprouting from them is a host of classic, AM-friendly pop songs, that nod reverently to Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Wilco and The Silver Jews.
The opening track, ‘Dark Hand of Contagion’, is an unhurried break-up song; melodious and straightforward upon first listen, but repeated spins reveal a dry and matter of fact wit that returns throughout the album. Deliciously venomous moments like: ‘Your wedding day was so well planned / Like a German occupation’, sidle up to McCaughey’s more vulnerable, poetic side, like on the Leonard Cohen-esque ‘Big Beat Up Moon’, to provide a rich and varied tapestry, worth revisiting again and again.
‘The Disembowelers’ sounds like a spoof theme tune to a tv show of the same name. ‘I Would Rather Sacrifice You’, could have been written as a sister track to ‘The Christian Life’, from The Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The heavy religious overtones invite a second take: Is McCaughey being serious? It’s a question I asked myself a number of times throughout Killingsworth, and it’s a compliment to his songwriting that I still don’t know whether he’s taking the piss or being over-zealous. It’s often hard to tell where he draws the line, but anyone with the nerve to rhyme ‘feudal lord’ with ‘smorgasbord’ has my vote from the get-go.
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists takes makes a star turn on ‘Scott Walker’s Fault’, which is possibly the least epic song he has sung in a while, but The Minus 5 are at their best when it’s McCaughey in the driving seat, with Watson Twins like backing vocals from the female band members. As with Jeff Tweedy’s, McCaughey’s voice manages to carry each track despite being limited in its range.
Alas, it’s unlikely that at this stage in their careers The Minus 5 will ever get the headlines their music deserves, but I doubt they care much. McCaughey is equal parts self-depreciating and slapstick: even in his melancholy, the guy sounds like he’s having a good time, which is perhaps why Killingsworth is so endearing.
Written for Contact Music