In 2006 Model Citizen was at a crossroads.
Led by guitarist / songwriter / producer Matt Patton (who you may know as the grinning visage holding down the low-notes for Drive-By Truckers) and the careening-yet-precise blasts of drummer Mike Gault, the Birmingham-by-way-of-Tuscaloosa, Alabama band came roaring into the 21st century with Born Tired and The Inner Fool – two collections of mod-influenced punk that had more in common with The Motor City than The Magic City. Not only could they kick out the jams, but Patton peppered his lyrics with subtle character studies that discreetly elevated Model Citizen’s songs a cut above their peers.
But each of the three years that separated The Inner Fool and the album that would prove to be both masterpiece and swan song, Save It For The Campfire, came with some extra gravity. In addition to keeping Model Citizen on the road and taking several stabs at recording a new record, Patton was increasing his profile – and that of Model Citizen — by becoming a ubiquitous bassist (and a very good one at that), playing with variety of Birmingham acts as well as the raucous electric blues musician, Paul “Wine” Jones, and The Dexateens – the legendary Tuscaloosa rockers who had just signed with Estrus Records and were making new fans in Europe and the U.K. Unfortunately, all that extra work didn’t translate into more attention for Model Citizen. Exhausted, and facing their 30s, the band thought about calling it day.
Still, the band were armed with enough good songs to make one more album – and if it was going to be the last, then they were going to make it count.
Along with new bassist, Randy Hughes, Model Citizen travelled to Nashville to record with their pal Lynn Bridges (The Dexateens, Lee Bains & The Glory Fires, Devendra Banhart), who had set up a studio in the basement of ex-pat Alabama punker Chet Weiss (The Immortal Lee County Killers, The Quadrajets). No longer content with merely capturing the sound of three-dudes-in-a-room, Patton and company decided to go for something that was both naturalistic and psychedelic rather than merely blown out.
“I had gotten massively into soul music by that time, and started collecting singles rather than LPs,” says Patton. “I was really trying to make these two-and-a-half, 3, 4 minute songs with bells and whistles – just things that pop. That was a new direction for me.”
The result is the kind of record Model Citizen had always dreamt of making. Save It For The Campfire slashes and grooves as hard as anything the band had done before, but the songs benefit from their well-earned swagger and a production that leaves plenty of room for atmosphere – be it the natural slap of that basement studio, a choir of backing vocals, pedal steel, layers of feedback, or a series of wild, sputtering amps running through the leslie of an old church organ. It’s a natural and inspired progression – and it sounds amazing whether your blasting it through big speakers or appreciating all the rich and detailed mix through a good pair of headphones.
That aforementioned gravity of the years leading into the recording of Save It For The Campfire can be heard in the songwriting as well. The words and the performances sound not only lived in, but haunted. From “Empty Room” to “Seen a Ghost,” these are songs with specters, demons, and mysterious light – all delivered with sinister purpose. “Before the Next Full Moon” is punk at its most paranormal – as if Sonic Youth absorbed a little more from CCR than an album title.
Still, in the end, the gravity proved victorious. Save it For The Campfire was released with little fanfare at home: the band never even played a record release show. An Italian label, Nicotine Records, took an interest in the band and released it overseas, and despite some good press – especially in the U.K. – the band were never able to cross the pond and capitalize on it (and the label folded soon after). So, not long after the record’s release, they band quietly brought things to a close – occasionally getting together for a few shows. Looking back, Patton and Gault have wish they would’ve done a few things differently but, ultimately, were happy to walk away as good friends still proud of what they accomplished.
And make no mistake: Save It For The Campfire is quite an accomplishment. Now, with this re-release from Keepin’ Up records, it’s a great time to discover (or rediscover) this would-be classic that should appeal to Rock and Roll fans of all stripes. And with the appearance of some recently discovered tapes, we may have not heard the last of Model Citizen.