“Please tell it like it is; don’t fuck around with words. Because when you fuck around with words, you make the situation worse.”
So says the Country Teasers’ Ben Waller in “White Patches,” a devastating one-two punch of a song that encapsulates everything good about the band. Over what sounds like an amateur bastardization of a Glenn Branca guitar symphony, Waller bemoans the lack of black people at his shows (“Do they hate me? Or are they just a little bit too thick?”) before taking a swipe at the lily-white fan base of rap music’s most famous eccentric (“Everybody likes Kool Keith But how do you think Kool Keith feels?”).
In short, Waller is fucking around with words — not just on “White Patches” but throughout the entirety of The Empire Strikes Back. This is something that the acerbic Scotsman has made a career of doing — the Country Teasers have been around since 1993, and their discography is defined by songs that explore race, sex and class from the perspective of racists, sexists and homophobes. Ani Difranco this is not.
Of course, Waller’s fantastically offensive lyrics are a form of satire — a series of modest proposals from rock ‘n’ roll’s answer to Jonathan Swift. The Empire Strikes Back includes such “gems” as the Pink Floyd-appropriating “Spiderman in the Flesh,” in which Waller advocates killing everyone who isn’t a straight white Christian. This leads into “Points of View,” where a fascist, virulently racist line of thought is ruthlessly articulated. Oh, and don’t forget “Good Looking Boys or Women,” which expresses the “she was asking for it” mentality of the repressed straight male.
This kind of stuff makes for a great first listen — a liberating escape from the stifling close-mindedness of politically correct dogmatism, as well as an always-welcome reminder that words are only as powerful as we wish them to be. But there’s a major problem here. The Country Teasers’ audience is largely made up of fringe-dwelling indie-rock misanthropes, hardened veterans who are quick to make comparisons to presumable influences such as Pussy Galore and (especially) the Fall. The band’s compositions tend to be largely tuneless dirges that combine a minimalist country aesthetic with caveman-stomp garage rock. Waller’s “singing” is limited to a sort of droning sing-speak.
In other words, there’s nothing immediately endearing about The Empire Strikes Back. In order to be truly subversive, the members of Country Teasers would have to combine their nihilistic worldview with an impeccable knack for melody and general tunefulness. That way, their songs would have a chance at capturing the attention of music fans that would never otherwise listen to what they had to say. Infiltrate and overtake, right?
Others have succeeded where the Country Teasers fail. Any Frogs fans out there? The Milwaukee-based brothers put out album-length explorations of both homosexuality (It’s Only Right and Natural) and race (Racially Yours), and exploited their position as “Billy Corgan’s favorite band” to find a sizable audience for each. Even more adept at this delicate dance is Pixar’s favorite tunesmith, Randy Newman. In “Rednecks,” for example, Newman excoriates close-minded Southerners and self-righteous Northerners in equal measure, while offending everyone by including the N-word in the chorus. And that’s just one song.
But the Country Teasers? Well, they’re certainly worth listening to. But, barring a major change in sound, the band is destined to live out the rest of its life as cultish curiosities. Fucking around with words only means something if people are interested in what you have to say.