As suggested by its title, KMAG YOYO, an acronym soldiers use that stands for “Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own,” Hayes Carll doesn’t concern himself with politeness or discretion. Instead, the Houston native has continued to detail the lifestyle of a charming rake who not only acknowledges his rambling ways but at times celebrates his wayward behavior.
On KMAG YOYO, his inventive ode to boozers and louts, Carll quipped, “I guess there must be something I’m missin’ / My mama told me I should’ve gone into easy listenin’” in a woe-is-me whine. Instead, Carll finds himself playing loud clubs where “nobody’s listening so we might as well scream,” a place where people tell him, “Boy, you ain’t a poet, just a drunk with a pen.” Make that a drunk with a smart pen. At the time, Carll had been spinning his misery into clever country songs on four albums, starting with 2002’s Flowers & Liquor. His predecessor to KMAG, 2008’s Trouble in Mind, featured songs like “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” in which he drawled, “My head hurts / I’d like to stick around and make it worse.”
He’s always had a bit of Steve Earle in his hard accent and gristly tone, but his sensibility falls closer to country wisecrackers like Kinky Friedman or Lyle Lovett. KMAG YOYO didn’t fiddle much with Carll’s persona. He was still chasing the wrong dreams and making the worst decisions. But he was incorrigible. “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller,” he sang. “All I wanna do is stomp and holler.”
Not that Carll only hollered. Only about a third of KMAG’s songs raised a blues-rock ruckus, the reference point being Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which he paraphrased more than once. The rest favored cry-in-your-beer country ballads, the kind that use a pedal steel as a punch line for hyperbolic effect. “Chances Are” offered the perfect hangdog weeper, satirizing and embracing songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” while “Grateful for Christmas” found Carll talking through the tale of a dysfunctional family like a jokey Johnny Cash.
Beneath all these tales lay an earnest craft — one that hasn’t quite held up over the course of his successive albums, which show fatigue. He still manages to find his way into critics’ polls and win awards, but KMAG YOYO remains Carll’s genuine high-water mark, full of delightfully clever nudges and winks.
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