Graded on a Curve: Tobacco City,
Tobacco City, USA

Tobacco City is the handle used by at least a couple of shops dedicated to the sale of all things legally smokable, but it’s also the name of a band form Chicago, and don’tcha just know it, their country-infused sound harkens back to the days when the air in bars was thick with secondhand carcinogens. Not that the five-piece’s debut is a mere retro trip. No, it plants its shovel deep in the fertile soil of lightly psych-kissed country-rock and pulls up eight mineral-rich tunes, many with sweet guy-gal harmonies that should warm the cockles of anybody with an unquenchable thirst for the brilliance of Gram and Emmylou. Tobacco City, USA is out July 30 on LP and digital via Scissor Tail Records.

Tobacco City consists of vocalist-guitarists Lexi Goddard and Chris Coleslaw, bassist-vocalist Eliza Weber, drummer Josh Condon, and pedal steel specialist Nick Usalis. Across the eight songs that tidily comprise Tobacco City, USA, the members click together with impressive proficiency for a first album. Although they have been together for a few years, it hasn’t been with this exact lineup, as the initial impetus was to play a Halloween gig as a Neil Young cover band.

That’s a fine platform from which to emerge, but Tobacco City has far surpassed that modest objective with growth that’s apparent straight away through the album’s opener and digital single “Blue Raspberry,” the band hitting a relaxed zone that connects as perfectly suited for recuperation after a late night’s early sunshiny morning.

Goddard and Coleslaw’s voices blend together with vibrant echo and then further intermingle with the siren swells of pedal steel, but the real kicker is how the bedrock of strummed guitar and drums expands the cut’s usefulness beyond simple accompaniment for extended couch lazing, meaning “Blue Raspberry” is as appropriate for preparing to ramp it up as it is for gently coming down.

It’s the next cut, the harmonies and steel-soaked “Tobacco City Waltz,” that firmly establishes the outfit’s honky-tonkin’ country-rockin’ bona fides. It’s a sound many have attempted over the decades since the Nudie suit and roach clip 1970s, but few have pulled it off this convincingly, crucially here through pure skill, but with good judgement sealing the deal.

And they can pull it off at faster tempos as well, with “Tobacco City Waltz” extending into the energetic and rhythmically crisp (a la Nashville pros) “AA Blues,” with the song’s subject matter, a familiar C&W theme, handled with an unusual level of sincerity, even as the scenario seems fictitious (e.g. “working on the brewery line,” the mention of some dude named Jimmy).

With “Never on My Mind,” Goddard takes the lead all by her lonesome as the sound gravitates toward the folky. It’s tempting to call it aura introspective, but the lyrics are descriptively direct, and while the classification of singer-songwriter also might seem a good fit, there’s a rhythmic passage late in the tune that underscores the full-band reality (followed by an ending that’s an album highlight).

With “Neon Lights,” the harmonies swing back, but the tune is a smidge more bluesy (structurally rather than thematically) but with a prevailing atmosphere that reminds me of early ’70s Grateful Dead. This is another not uncommon contempo sensibility, but Tobacco City pull it off through a combo of distinctiveness and pure panache.

To expand, “Half In the Bag” opens with strummed guitar that brings to mind Bob Dylan riding a horse while wearing a cowboy hat. Meanwhile, off in the distance, Sam Peckinpah pours himself another shot of tequila. But then Goddard’s vocal glides in on a wave of pedal steel, and it’s a little like Mazzy Star had been shepherded into existence in good ol’ Music City, USA.

This alternate reality is a flat-out wonderful thing to consider, but what’s even better is how it took over a half-dozen listens for the vision to take shape. And that the next song is titled “LSD” is like being handed a suitcase full of cash by Warren Oates as he calmly advises you not to spend it all in one place. What a good egg that guy was.

“LSD” is another sweet dose of the unperturbed that would doubtlessly sound magnificent whilst floating down a river all sprawled out in an innertube, and as such, would’ve been an effective bookend with “Blue Raspberry,” but no. Tobacco City have one more number in store, with “Brother” exiting the honky-tonk and saying happy trails for a dusty canyon while taking the joint’s pedal steel player along for the trip. It delivers a satisfying finale to Tobacco City, USA, which coheres into one of the stronger debuts I’ve heard in quite a while, and from inside an increasingly crowded field.

I wonder if they actually played that Neil Young covers set.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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