Chad Sullins & Last Call Coalition: Incommunicado

Chad Sullins and the Last Call Coalition are making a whole lot of noise up in Oklahoma these days, and justifiably so.  In a section of the country that’s still coming to terms with just what the hell Red Dirt music was/is, and that in some distinct ways is attempting to draw a line of demarcation between itself and how its latest sound is being translated down in Texas, there’s something to be said for a band that’s committed to sounding different.  In fairness, some of the fathers of Red Dirt are also now mining very different veins – Mike McClure’s doing intensely mature stuff these days, the Damn Quails are charting an interesting course, and even Cody Canada is looking for greener pastures with the Departed.  So in a way it makes sense that as the sound that made Stillwater famous moves on (even as countless Lone Star bands fall into line mimicking/copying that formula while somehow decrying Nashville for being formulaic), new bands coming onto the scene make concerted efforts to flex their muscles and sound unique.

Sullins and company fit into that category, and have built both some buzz and the beginnings of a rabid fan base that rates them with the Jackson Taylor Band and other similar bona fide originals melding a combination of classic country with Mike Ness infused rock ‘n roll.

But that’s not the case with the Last Call Coalition, at least not entirely.  This band, as evidenced on this, their second full-length CD (there was also an acoustic EP titled What’s Left Of Me), is in no way typical of the mindless Red Dirt drones infesting airwaves these days.  But they’re also not necessarily new or unique or fresh in the sense that many of their ardent college age and young twenties fans think.

We’ve heard records like this before.  One of them was released all the way back in 1992.  Remember those gloomy days when hair metal was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of flannelled grunge?   All the cool kids were acting as if Kurt Cobain was the lyrical second coming of Bob Dylan (he was not), or else they were moshing furiously to the intricate yet inharmonious sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins.  Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) was getting movie roles, playing stoned out losers in apocalyptic landscapes pretending to hold some kind of universal truth.   It was all bullshit, as was a significant portion of the hair metal which preceded it.  But there were nuggets in those hair bands’ outputs now and again.  Purists may argue with me here, and that’s okay – I am always up for a good scrap.  Especially when the truth’s on my side.  So, let’s get back to the point. 1992.  Warrant released a record that about twelve people ever heard, titled Dog Eat Dog.  Of course by that time Warrant was largely considered a joke, because the novelty of songs like “Cherry Pie” and “Love In Stereo” had long worn thin, as had the, uh, power of power ballads, which were the other key staple of Warrant’s chart success.  But think back to the days when you either had parachute pants or wanted some, when breakdancing and Crockett and Tubbs and pastel shirts were cool.  See if you can conjure up a song called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  It was on that Cherry Pie album.  And it was powerful.  Showed some glimpse of just what Warrant frontman Jani Lane was capable of.  Then in 1992, as hair metal choked on its own excesses, Jani and the boys released Dog Eat Dog.  And it was a full-on frontal assault of sound and fury and intelligence.   Why are we talking about this here?  Because, whether any of the kids listening these days realize it or not, Chad Sullins is Oklahoma’s answer to Jani Lane.  And that is neither as horrible or as good a thing as you might think, depending on your own personal point of reference.

Incommunicado, as noted above, is just the second full-length release from Sullins and the Last Call Coalition.  As second releases are wont to do, it highlights both room for growth and indications of real potential.   The record’s big summer hit, “Thank God for Jack Daniels,” is every bit as ingratiating and as throwaway as “Cherry Pie” ever was.  It gets down in your eardrum and stays apparently forever, the sort of barroom rocker singalong that kids these days will be singing to annoy their grandchildren decades in the future.  It’s infectious, it’s catchy, it’s enjoyable as all get out.  And it has absolutely nothing mature or intelligent to say.  This is the double-edge downside of what Sullins and company are doing these days.  On the one hand, this is a fantastic song for radio and for emptying out the beer tubs at a honky tonk on a Saturday night.  On the other, it feels like another ridiculous attempt by wet behind the ears youngsters to explain the concept of whiskey to those of us who’ve danced with the demons in the bottle.  Clearly that opinion’s influenced by this reviewer’s age (42) and experience (varied and colorful).  The song sounds mightily different to a 22-year-old frat boy who doesn’t understand yet what a hangover on a Monday morning really means.  So in fairness, let’s account for that distinction.  But in the final tally, the best songs about that wonderfully destructive amber liquid in the bottles from Lynchburg have already been written and sung to perfection by the likes of Coe, Gary Stewart, and, yes, Jackson Taylor.  This isn’t one of those; it’s just a song about how fun it is to get fucked up.  And there’s a place for that.   If that’s all this record was, I would have passed on a review.  We just don’t deal with simple entertainers here at Outlaw.  But Sullins has something else going on, and that’s where it gets intriguing, much as Jani Lane has long intrigued me.

Take the first real opening track on this record, “Scratch,” as Exhibit A.  There’s an intro before it that’s an interesting mélange of handclaps and boot stomps and other assorted noises, but that first real song dives into a swampy blues rock feel that would be at home in the finest Delta dives.  Like many traditional blues songs, it says a lot without actually saying much.  The important parts are in between the lines and require interpretation.  But within the context of the genre that spawned it, it’s a solid track.  And later, on a completely different plane and within an utterly different sound, Chad and the boys slow down and deliver haunted and powerfully soul-searching ballads like “Paris” and “10 One 10” that speak to material songwriting ability.

I know we argue

And I know we fight

I hope you know you’re the reason

That I come home at night

Even when you’re broken

Even when you’re sad

The love that you give to me

Is the best I ever had

Not the most intricate lyrics, sure.  But heartfelt, and delivered with a weathered vocal underscoring the absolute belief in every single word.  It’s in these moments that Chad turns a listener into a believer, and it’s tracks like these that spark a genuine interest in what the band does next.  Adding a pedal steel doesn’t hurt, either.

There’s also an entrancing and compelling nod to Oklahoma legend Bob Childers in an inspired cover of “Dance With the Gypsies.”  Perhaps nowhere else on the record is the band’s ability to set a tone and create an atmospheric mood highlighted so effectively.  It’s also an eminently effective track for Sullins’ weathered, nuanced, cryptic and powerful vocals.

So what are we left with?  For my money, it’s a combination of Oklahoma’s answer to Jani Lane as noted above and the promise of something potentially much, much more.  If you’re already a fan of Sullins and you like this record, do yourself a favor and go get a copy of Dog Eat Dog.  See where Jani was going and what he could do when the label suits weren’t always yanking his chain.  And if you thought Warrant’s lesser known records had substance, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Chad Sullins and the Last Call Coalition.  Better yet, if you’re one of the music literati who believe only certain sounds have worth, you’ll get an eye opening education that you definitely need.

It seems clear that the band doesn’t yet quite know who they want to be when they grow up, and that’s okay.  They demonstrate unequivocally here that they’re capable of being effective across a very wide spectrum of songs and sounds and genres.  You’re sure to be entertained and occasionally inspired by the track list on Incommunicado.   The question is, what’s next?  Just another rehashed hair band like the Red Dirt followers in Texas seem to be turning into?  Or a truly effective and mature act capable of taking on whatever sound feels right for a given lyric and hammering it home without mercy?  We’re hoping for the latter, of course.  And there’s no doubt the potential exists.  It’s going to be interesting watching this band evolve.  And in the meantime, with this record, they’ve given us plenty to sing along to and, on occasion, substantive things to think about while we enjoy the ride. to get yourself acquainted.

~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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