Success can create prisons for musicians: Though Southern Culture on the Skids has never been incarcerated like, say, John Mayer (who seems to enjoy the "serial headcase" attention) or Dave Matthews (who's sentenced to his fans), their skill at writing satirical white-trash paeans often overshadows their broader talents. Anyone who's seen them live should know better, as leader Rick Miller likes to take their sets in offbeat directions. On albums, though, the band has hewn closer to its stylistic, somewhat shtick-based reputation.
Given that history, one could see The Kudzu Ranch as a continuation of 2007's Countrypolitan Favorites, a covers album that assayed an adventurous range of tracks, from The Kinks' "Muswell Hillbilly" to T. Rex's "Life's a Gas." Their first set of originals since 2004's Mojo Box, the new album explores a wider field of sound than greasy country and rockabilly, showcasing sharp writing, spot-on playing and staggering versatility.
The Kudzu Ranch is not only the name of the new album but also Miller's studio, where it was recorded, and the label for their first self-released effort. It succeeds not so much because of individual tracks but on the strength of the entire effort, or in how all these little pieces fit. Sure, there's some great numbers, like Mary Huff's garage-soul number "It's the Music That Makes Me" and the percolating '60s pop of "Highlife," with its Merseybeat ease and reverb guitar. "My Neighbor Burns Trash" is a banjo-banging, SCOTS-style classic. But they're paced with surf instrumentals ("Slinky Spring Milt"), jazzy cabaret exotica (the smoky "Montague's Mystery Theme"), stomping cow-punk (the infectious "Pig Pickin'") and sizzling rockabilly ("Bad Boys"). Everything segues well, and the variety means that The Kudzu Ranch remains quite fresh on repeat. Sure, it doesn't jump in your face with its rambunctious humor and good spirits, but its overall crispness and subtle insistence make this one of the finest releases from this still-evolving North Carolina treasure.