God’s Favorite Band, the latest from Austin’s Asylum Street Spankers, is definitely a gospel album, but it’s no conciliatory turn away from a career defined by subversion. The post-modern jug band responsible for such songs as “If You Love Me (You’ll Sleep on the Wet Spot)” and anti-warmongering Tony Orlando riff “Stick Magnetic Ribbons On Your SUV” hasn’t exactly been born again; press materials refer to God’s Favorite Band as an “agnostic gospel” album. Why risk making the holy water boil?
“If you think about it, it’s the genesis of all American roots music,” co-bandleader Christina Marrs said. “Without gospel music and without this unique and often unfortunate history of America — where you have this convergence of two very different cultures — we wouldn’t have gospel, jazz, blues, and rock ’n’ roll, all of the genres that are distinctly American in origin.”
God’s Favorite Band is just another way for ASS to be provocative by being traditional. This is the band that played unplugged and un-mic-ed for nine years until 2004, to preserve an acoustic-roots tradition, made a hipster kids’ record to embarrass other hipster kids’ records (we’re looking at you, They Might Be Giants), and misled us into thinking they made an entire album worshipping weed (Spanker Madness) only to sucker-punch listeners with a few tracks about how drugs ruin lives.
“You don’t have to be religious to appreciate this genre of music,” Marrs said. “I’ve come to find that spirituality isn’t about dogma. It’s about transcendence. What I mean is getting this brief glimpse into reality that isn’t there on the surface.”
Compiled from three 2006 performances at Saxon Pub in Austin, God’s Favorite Band cherry-picks nine gospel covers and two religious originals. Generally, ASS’s sets are peppered with gospel tunes, so it was just a matter of deciding which songs to record.
Marrs’s songwriting partner Wammo gave the originals a mixture of acceptance and skepticism, ironically revealing a certain religiosity in his songwriting.
“I’m not sure that Wammo has really come to grips with the fact that you can play gospel music without being a religious person,” Marrs said. “When he sings a song, he needs to feel connected to it. He’s a little more contrary to the idea of playing cover songs.”
Not surprisingly, Wammo’s contributions are the most irreverent. On “Right and Wrong” he says he’s got no beef with Buddha “because he’s a huge Nirvana fan” and speculates that God’s attention span is short. But Wammo concedes that spirituality is understandably born out of the human need — for better or for worse — to establish natural law. Meanwhile, “Volkswagen Thing” compares what God drives (the VW) to the Devil’s long, black Mercedes (the brim-stoned one also has a Hummer, apparently). You can probably guess who the more polite driver is. Both tracks force Wammo to walk a tightrope, not wanting to alienate religious listeners, while maintaining his core skepticism. His songs make the best conversation pieces, but are a little distracting in their self-awareness.
The real star here is Marrs. Her stunning vocal timbre creates a casual soul vibe, and her open-minded musical approach frees her to dig her heels into highlights such as the celebratory “Each Day” and the slave spiritual “Last Mile of the Way.” Marrs also takes a turn in the producer’s chair, previewing what the Spankers hope will be an era of self-recorded releases.
Also on the ASS agenda: Marrs said the band is trying to get away from playing bars in favor of performing-arts venues that cater to their un-amped ethic and “an attentive audience.” Marrs has a theory about loud, amplified bands, and she has no problem sharing it: They’re trying to bury mistakes in all that musical mud. She thinks playing un-amped produces a clearer, better-balanced sound with a wider dynamic spectrum. She adds that playing un-amplified requires something most of us aren’t willing to do when God’s involved.
“What happens when you’re in a band without amplification … you’re forced to listen, which is a very different thing from hearing,” she said. •
Asylum Street Spankers
9pm Sat, Jun 5
Casbeers at the Church
1150 South Alamo