Radartown

Mark Germino & The Sluggers – Radartown (1991)

This is one of my favourite ever records, written and recorded by a man who was a truck driver in Nashville by day, and a singer/songwriter at night. It’s a record that should have been huge, but you know, the 90s.

It’s a rock record of sorts, but not pedal to the metal rock. It has Southern Rock tinges to it, but it’s no Skynyrd. It’s got guitar and piano led ballads, but not saccharine sweet false ones.

This is a record of heart, and soul, and blood, sweat and tears. Every song is carefully crafted and bought to life by a skilled musician backed by a hard working band. Do all of the tracks work? No, but that’s the beauty. It feels raw. Real. Dramatic.

When it does work, it is – and I’ll be pretentious here- beautiful in places. Some of the lyrics are like poetry; no surprise that Germino arrived in Nashville initially as a poet and spoken word performer.

That’s neither here nor there for the rockier tracks on the record though; Opener Radartown has a great guitar and drum track driving it, backed up by a swirling hammond organ and ferociously delivered lyrics spat out with what feels like genuine venom.

Let Freedom Ring (Volumes 4, 5 & 6) continues in a similar vein, but a great lyric that never slows down and delivers a great stream of conscious narrative. There’s a genuine distrust of lawyers and the legal system at the heart of this, but the hook carries it without getting too deep.

We slow things down for the amazingly titled Leroy & Bo’s Totalitarian Showdown which showcases Germino’s excellent ability to pick out a melody with his gentle, Southern lilt while carrying a great story through the song – this about two brothers with differing political views.

Unionville is another essentially political song, gunning for a town where the unions hold the power. Starting off with just piano and mandolin, it builds momentum constantly, and adds strings and harmonies before it climaxes back to it’s mandolin and piano finish. Beautiful songwriting.

Economics (Of The Rat & The Snake) is for me the weak point of the record. Lyrically, it’s still strong but it never picks up my attention. There’s some nice slide guitar work, but on the whole, it’s a one listen and skip song for me – and at over 8 minutes long, it’s just too drawn out.

Picking up the pace, thankfully, with She’s A Mystery – and it’s back to the faster paced rock side of Germino. Again, his lyrics are the stand out feature of this, referencing Karl Marx, Kuala Lumpur, angel fish and zinfandel in what turns out to be a quirky take on your standard boy-loves-girl song.

Pandora’s Boxcar Blues is the closest thing to a generic love song on the record, and even then – it’s a push. This has a real Tom Petty feel to it – and that’s no bad thing. This is probably his best vocal performance on the record too. Nice, inoffensive gentle rock music.

Then we have Exalted Rose, a song that’s half sung, half spoken. The song tells the story of a woman at a bar telling her tale of domestic woes to the bartender. Germino’s lyrics are outstanding here, painting a picture:

Silent and breathless like he’d punctured his lungs
Until his mouth became his quiver, and his sword became his tongue
I became his target
Because his anger wouldn’t melt and no poem ever written can describe how that felt

It’s worth hunting down this record JUST for this track, in my humble opinion.

From that, we’re back into mid paced Southern style rock with Serenade Of The Old Red Cross. Taking on politicians again, and the divisive nature of the South’s history of racism, it’s a lot cheerier than it has any right to be.

Burning The Firehouse Down is a the fastest, most flat out rock song on the record, and wouldn’t feel out of place on a Black Crowes album. The guitar solo in the middle is great, and we even get one of my favourite tricks in music, the fake out ending. Great track!

Closing the record is the other outstanding track on the album, Rex Bob Lowenstein. I often heard an acoustic version of this played on the radio by the great Bob Harris, and you’ll understand why he loved it so much. It’s the tale of a broken down radio DJ who plays pretty much anything, being told to stick to a playlist, and rebelling spectacularly against the machine. The song has a great hook, and again, the lyrics are amazing.

All in all, a fantastic record that should have got a wider audience. It’s not extreme, or ground breaking, but it showcases a man who has a great ear for a melody and pens beautiful lyrics that contain actual characters and stories that grab you. One down point that can be skipped, but this remains one of my favourite records to throw on at night.

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