There exists a grey zone between radio-friendly mainstream country and critic-friendly alt-country. For all intents and purposes, let’s call that zone, well, “country.” Milwaukee’s Doghouse Flowers occupy that pure “country” zone about as well as anyone these days, effortlessly serving up twangy tales of heartbreak and drinking (though not necessarily in that order) with zero traces of radio-friendly cynicism or indie-cred irony. On the band’s second full-length album, Cold Comfort, that formula is polished to a high shine but given just the right amount of grit to satisfy even the most discerning country purist. This is straight-up, meat-and-potatoes country rock, as God and Waylon Jennings (though, again, not necessarily in that order) intended.
Formed in 2012, Doghouse Flowers are the brainchild of singer-songwriter and New Orleans native Justin Reuther. His is a voice built for the genre, all twang and bottom-of-the-bottle baritone. On upbeat opener “The Other Shoe,” Reuther sings about having a “target on [his] back” that’s set to “ready, aim, and fire,” underscored by a sparkling bed of pedal steel and honkey-tonk piano. Lead guitarist Brian Scheele, drummer Mike Budde, and bassist Jon Ziegler provide the crackerjack backing, and each chips in on the song’s just-right harmonies. From there, Cold Comfort trucks along at a brisk clip: “LA 1” tells the bittersweet tale of small towns and big-city dreams, “Busy Livin’” channels the kind of song that always seems to be playing from a beat-up radio in a country diner at 7 a.m., and “No Tell Motel” cheekily salutes fleabag motels and the folks who love them. The excellent title track, meanwhile, is a bleary barroom waltz that wallows in its own misery before bursting into a defiant, chant-along chorus.
Cold Comfort may hew to classic country themes and a classic country sound shot through with The Jayhawks and Drive-By Truckers, but that doesn’t mean it’s all pickup trucks, dirt roads, and steel guitar. Instead, the album is at its best when Doghouse Flowers wrap Reuther’s tales of woe in upbeat musical trapping, and vice versa. That push-and-pull comes through in standout tracks like “Shoe,” which takes a bitter kiss-off to the world and marries it to a giddy-up crowd-pleaser, and “It Would Have Happened Anyway,” which glumly takes stock of a doomed-from-the-start relationship and dresses it up in a toe-tapping shuffle. The album’s greatest act of subversion, however, may lie in its accessibility. Tracks like “Shoe” and “Great Minds Drink Alike” are perfectly fine-tuned for mainstream country radio play, right down to their textbook key changes and booze-soaked sentiments.
Still, it wouldn’t be a country album without plenty of heartbreak and loss. “My dreams are getting older every day / I don’t want to stay,” Reuther sings on “LA 1.” It’s a song sung from the perspective of a female protagonist looking to escape her dead-end town, but it’s easy to read it as something more universal. There’s a real longing there, but one tempered by the knowledge that time is running out. Cold comfort, indeed.
Doghouse Flowers will celebrate the release of Cold Comfort Saturday, October 24 at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall. Eddie Crummer will play in support. The show starts at 8 p.m. and costs $7 at the door. Stream the entire album now, only at Milwaukee Record.