To talk about the Emperors of Wyoming’s debut album without mentioning renowned producer and Garbage drum botherer Butch Vig would be… well, impossible, so we best get it done upfront. Were Vig’s name not associated with the group, it’s hard to believe these Midwestern noblemen would be getting the recognition they are. Still, the seasoned musicians who played together in Wisconsin in the 70s and 80s – the most notable being Fire Town, Vig’s last stop before Garbage – have come together again to produce a reasonably engaging collection, rich in the spirit of Tom Petty and Tom Waits. Well, we say come together but the four band members never actually worked on the album in the same room, instead noodling in their home studios and sending patches of track across the web, though it fits together so seamlessly, you could never tell.
Though a major influence on the Emperors’ sound is obviously country, it’s not completely clear cut with elements of folk and classical rock making their way into the very slickly produced mix. This is an unashamed American album, inspired wholly by the world that the band members have grown up in, lived in, and reminisced upon. Album opener ‘The Bittersweet Sound of Goodbye’ kicks in with Neil Young-esque guitars, breaking into swaying melodic Americana, while ‘Cornfield Palace’ is a Crazy Horse style number about a Midwestern woman carrying on an affair while her husband tends the cornfields of the title. Later in the album, the country folk put a contemporary radio-friendly spin on a traditional Wisconsin River ballad from the 19th century, ‘The Pinery Boy’, a dark and stormy ditty, deepened by thundering, menacing guitars.
Vocalist Phil Davis has a rich easy listening twang meant for this kind of music but his Dylan-like voice occasionally wanders into affectation. And never mind the formulaic lyrics that creep in to songs such as Avalanche Girl, it’s worse that the rollicking Dixie rhythms and riffs are sometimes choked under a little too much vocal. Perhaps the problem with too much experience is that it’s hard to look objectively at what has been created.
Emperors of Wyoming is unlikely to go down on many best of 2012 lists. It’s listenable, unchallenging, pleasant little more than that. Somehow though, we doubt the band will worry too much. After all, they have their fingers in many (American) pies.