If your idea of heaven is a place where the rock singers wear eyeliner, then this is your music. The Chamber Strings excel at what's known as drunk and junkie rock, the genre of tatty glamour defined by the Faces, the Stones, Johnny Thunders, and the Replacements.
And though one needn't be a fan of the above to appreciate the homage, it would be safe to say lead String Kevin Junior is; he's made a conscious effort toward conjuring his rock 'n' roll heroes, dead or alive, but adds a dab of lo-fi and orchestral pop, so as not to bore everyone to death with derivations.
You could call the Chamber Strings' hybrid of Memphis soul and glam rock the next best thing to the early '90s version of the Black Crowes. Ouch, right? Nah, because unlike the Crowes' Chris Robinson -- who fancies himself a soul man -- Junior has no pretensions of playing Otis. On "Dead Man's Poise," it's compelling to listen to him try to squeeze the vocal out beside all the guitar noodling that's going on. This brand of fey takes balls -- think of a consumptive trying to sing the final phrases of "Try a Little Tenderness."
This cliched tragic beauty, as with Thunders and acolytes Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth (Junior was collaborating with Sudden's brother, Epic Soundtracks, at the time of his death in 1997), makes me want the whole thing to crash and burn. But it doesn't. Acoustic guitar and slide commingle with bells and real keyboards; a little violin here, a horn section there, and handclaps complete the scene.
The band keeps it lively with stylistic shifts like the spirited, "Ooh La La"-styled drinking song "Telegram" and the spooky '60s L.A.-goth of "The Race Is On," and by the time "Cold Cold Meltdown" comes around, with its Big Star-style reliance on the Stax sound, it's clear Junior can rightfully don the beer-soaked brothel creepers of his glam granddaddies. As he inverts dusty riff after dusty riff, anyone who holds tight to a '70s Creem magazine sensibility will be laughing with the lyrical references to "cheap champagne" and "crystal vision."
The Chamber Strings are way more whiskey-fied than Wilco's boy-rock. But it would be easy to understand why some might find ridiculous the idea of a record with sleigh bells, maracas, and a synthesized Muscle Shoals horn section, played by guys in shag haircuts and scarves.
-- Denise Sullivan