Do yourself a favor: If you like music, buy the Volebeats’ Country Favorites. If you hate country music, buy it anyway; you’re going to be surprised. It’s really, really good — perhaps one of the sleeper hits of 2003. In a town best known for creating the Motown sound — as well as its contributions to garage rock, from Iggy Pop to Jack White — the last sound anyone would expect to hear is mellow Nashville country. However, that’s precisely what the Motor City group the Volebeats offers here.
Country Favorites sounds like a Nashville album from the 1980s, though the song selection ranges from covers of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “I Had To Tell You” to Slayer’s “Die by the Sword” to ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” The project is similar to Ween’s 1996 foray into country, 12 Golden Country Greats. For Ween it was a stylistic departure; for the Volebeats, life seems to reside somewhere between polished honky-tonk and mellow country-folk.
Songs such as “I Had to Tell You” recall the sounds of alt-country groups like the Jayhawks and the Old 97’s, while other covers, such as “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” mix in 1950s pedal steel sounds with faint backing vocals, calling to mind melodramatic teen movies and Spaghetti Westerns. The group’s cover of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” is an exercise in Floydian guitar solos and lush soundscapes, but by far the best song on the album, Slayer’s “Die By the Sword,” morphs from speed metal into a slow, swaggering story of a whiskey-swigging gunslinger primed to defend his honor. For that alone, the album is worth picking up.