by Joe Gutierrez
The world that exists in Louisville’s State Champion’s Send Flowers is one cloaked in profound absurdity. It’s a place where you might lose your soul in “a gentleman’s hall in Tijuana” and have the manager offer to send it back home to you if he finds it, where cicadas harmonize with dial tones, where you can “unplug the stars from the sky.” Songwriter Ryan Davis sing-scrawls fascinating collages of words across Send Flowers, every line tinged with mystery and awe. Over the last decade, State Champion has sprawled out a history of honky tonk injected power-pop, dusty and boisterous—think Gram Parsons meets Teenage Fanclub with the swagger of Warren Zevon or the Stones. Here the band walks that same path, but with more poise, in control and in tune with the intricacies of rhythm and melody. State Champion foregoes straightforward country rock and conventional songwriting, valuing the nuances of unpredictable chord changes and instrumental garnishes.
Opening track “My Over, My Under” curls in slow, like tiptoeing through the dark hallway and back into bed. The band takes their time pulling back the curtains and setting the stage. It’s a minute before Davis utters a single word; when he does, his voice vacillates between hollering with an eternal snarl and cool, breezy cooing. The song chugs along as crunchy guitar zigzags between Mikie Poland’s serene, meandering bass, every dire proclamation punctuated by Sal Cassato’s crashing cymbals and snare snaps. Violin looms over all, casting a grievous glow—here and throughout State Champion’s oeuvre it’s not just the typical country song accompaniment. Sabrina Rush is a star player, her violin parts as integral as Davis’ croons and murmurs to solidifying the emotional tone over the course of the record.
Do I know what Ryan Davis is singing about most of the time? No. But the words, the wisps of smoke leaving his lips, sure sound pretty. Nothing makes those words radiate like Christopher May’s pedal steel playing, particularly on album closer “Stonehenge Blues Band Blues.” And when the time’s ripe for a guitar solo, Davis’ fretwork and May’s pedal steel twang elevate the song to the heavens, mixing like a warm summer gust to a pile of golden-brown leaves. Guest vocalist Edith Frost adds something special on nearly every song, too— her harmonies give a syrupy sheen to Davis’ lines. Without her, phrases like “I had a dream come apart at the seams and unglued/unsewn, untrue” would not hit you in the gut quite as hard.
Send Flowers is a lesson in laughing in the face of fear. Yes, sometimes things turn to shit and its hard to get a grip on what matters. But then something beautiful happens, like when Davis sings, “To see your room for the first time/to see a picture of me in it.” In “You Don’t Show Me”, Davis sings, “I found the flesh isn’t worth the trouble/if the spirit is not set free.” It’s a mission statement of sorts. All the meandering, the tussles, the endless questions—they’re all an effort to do just that: set the spirit free.