The Flatirons, a young group of country rockers from Portland, Ore., are not a band you are likely to have heard on the radio.
They just might be a little too foreboding.
That's unfortunate, since the Flatirons' slightly sinister mix of modern rock and honky tonk is rendered highly palatable by lead singer Wendy Pate's sultry vocals.
"It's minor-key, spooky, country stuff," 29-year-old rhythm guitarist/songwriter Scott Weddle said of the Flatirons' debut LP, Prayer Bones, released earlier this year on indie label Checkered Past.
"I've always been into killing songs," he said.
The album, primarily the opening cut, "Heaven Help You" (RealAudio excerpt), has gotten airplay around the U.S., mostly on the kind of two-hour Sunday-morning music programs you're likely to hear on public radio stations.
In other words, Weddle, Pate and company haven't quit their day jobs. In fact, lead guitarist Jason Okamoto, who provides jazzy, blues-inspired licks for the Flatirons' idiosyncratic brand of contemporary country rock, has a lucrative career as a sushi chef.
Weddle, who works for the Portland city government and splits the band's songwriting chores with Pate and Okamoto, harbors no grand delusion that the Flatirons' music is soon going to be in heavy rotation on MTV.
"We have a three-record deal with Checkered Past," Weddle said. "But I'd be happy if we make it to the level of a Los Lobos or Richard Thompson. [I'd like] to live comfortably. That would be great."
If anything can raise the Flatirons' profile, it would be Weddle's dark, evocative songs, as heard on Prayer Bones.
Weddle's "Devil Lives in Dallas" (RealAudio excerpt) — colored by the heavy reverb of Okamoto's guitar — is a haunting tale of a tortured relationship in which the protagonist kills her lover because of his diabolic influence on her.
"I feel the pistol in my hand," Pate sings. "I'll never get to heaven/ I'm reaping what I sow/ The devil lives in Dallas and he's a man I know."
Substance abuse is a recurring theme on the album. On "New Pair of Shoes," Weddle writes of a drug addict's plea for another chance at life. "By Yourself" is Weddle's answer to all the people of his generation who blame their addictions on genetics or family history.
"You ain't done nothing, though you've been blessed. ... Blame your grandfathers or anyone else, you've got here all by yourself," Pate sings over a gently rolling guitar.
Portland-area musician Danny O'Hanlon, who co-produced the LP with the band, said: "[The Flatirons'] subject matter is grown-up music. The songs [on Prayer Bones] are unusual for a group of people in their 20s."
O'Hanlon was recommended to the Flatirons by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, who also runs Outpost Records. The group had a demo deal with the label, but was picked up by Checkered Past.
The Flatirons, who also include bassist Matt Yoth and drummer Richard Cuellar, came together about three and a half years ago, when Pate and Okamoto met Weddle. Pate and Okamoto were playing in a Salem, Ore., rockabilly band that had just split up. After Weddle joined them, he convinced them to keep their country roots but venture into more experimental, less jubilant sounds.
Though the overall tone of Prayer Bones is moody, the album includes a very unlikely cover — a version of heavy-metal icon Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." Though it's not as uptempo as Collective Soul's recent, more faithful take on the song, the Flatirons give it an affecting country spin.
In a time when latter-day country acts such as the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks are selling cartloads of albums, the Flatirons are betting they have a chance to prosper. But they're not afraid of taking chances as they begin to plan their second LP.
"Nobody [in the band] is averse to the drum-loop idea," Weddle said. "You need to try all types of genres. Still, I wish Lucinda Williams would call us [to be] her opener."
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