Here’s The Minus 5, in a nutshell: Poignant, lyrical storytelling over simple homespun alt-rock. There are rabbit trails here and there, but the band, primarily Scott MacCaughey’s songwriting, rarely strays far from this formula. In fact, it can be very easy to underestimate the music on first listen because of its simple construction. Haughty listeners may even think, “I could have written that.” The less megalomaniacal ones know better.
The first cut off Killingsworth is a perfect example. “Dark Hand of Contagion” takes beginner’s level acoustic guitar chords, a lonely slide guitar and some minimal backing vocals and somehow materialises a soul-rendering country ballad, a Townes Van Zandt-ian heartbreaker that likens wedding plans to Nazi Invasions. It’s a subtle enough song to take for granted, but it reveals layers of emotion, surprising for something so elementary.
And so it goes. The album is chock full of these kind of revelatory songs. The entire album’s sound borders on nu-Americana, a type of Jayhawks-like country rock, but it’s the narratives that really stand out. Not all the stories are sombre either. “The Luerking Barrister” summarises a mischievous lawyer more bent on mayhem and tomfoolery than winning cases while the band’s banjo and creole accordion hum playfully underneath. “Ambulance Dancehall” conjurs images of southern cookouts and dance parties. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists guests on “Scott Walker’s Fault” and with the help of backing vocals asks the protagonist for a song.
Unfortunately for all the record’s hits, there are misses. Of the album’s fourteen tracks, MacCaughey manages to show us the best of The Minus 5, (“I Would Rather Sacrifice You”) and the dullest (“Vintage Violent”, “Gash in the Cocoon”).
Before the current barrage of supergroups, there was The Minus 5. Scott MacCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) formed the alt-rock collective with a constantly changing rotation of players for different projects, but the one thing that remained constant was MacCaughey’s dependable songwriting. Even sixteen years later, the group is relevant, and their music still stands out amongst the contemporary lineup of alt-rock ensembles. On Killingsworth, MacCaughey and company have etched some beautiful stories, pretty melodies and career-defining songs. Disappointingly, their momentum doesn’t hold up throughout, however, as there are definite low points where the music becomes a bit boring. An excusable offense for such a weathered group of musicians, and certainly a forgivable one for much of their already loyal fan base.