Fifteen years since his last proper studio release, longtime Lansing favorite Wally Pleasant returns with “Happy Hour,” a comedic string of songs with a sardonic look at small-town life. He’ll perform the album in its entirety, along with some old favorites, at the Robin Theatre Saturday.
“It’s kind of like the dark side of small-town life. I was inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s stories — that dark rural feel,” Pleasant said.
It’s a new sound for Pleasant, backed with a talented cast (Steve Simonson and Dave Schettler on drums, producer Jim Diamond on bass, Mike Lynch on keyboard/accordion, guitarists Drew Howard and Alex Lumelsky and backup vocalists Matt Dmits, Alison Lewis and Nat Spinz). The group has forged an effective pastiche of twangy country and surf rock, which Pleasant’s voice, a touch smokier this time around, sits on top of very well.
This style came to Pleasant through his house work playlists, which were heavily populated by early-70s country staples, like Waylon Jennings and Guy Clark.
“I would listen to a lot of country music from the early-70s and I ran out of stuff to listen to, so I had to write my own,” Pleasant said.
“In Colorado” begins the album on an unfamiliarly somber note for a Wally Pleasant album, telling the story of a man waving goodbye to his lover who leaves for Los Angeles and hits it big in the music industry. Pleasant sings of hearing them on the radio and seeing them on billboards while he continues to lead a boring life.
The mix of humorous absurdity and sadness lingers through the next two songs. In “Bless the Day,” Pleasant sings about all the things he’d do to guarantee his loved one’s return. “Addition Subtraction” uses several math metaphors to look back on a painful separation.
Each track gets a huge boost from the solid rock ‘n’ roll production stylings of Jim Diamond, who notably worked on the White Stripes’ early albums. There’s rolling bass lines, tight snare rolls and lush lap steel and electric guitar leads.
The title track, “Happy Hour,” is one of the album’s key tunes. It sees Pleasant running through a mid-Michigan bar scene that is ankle deep. He portrays a picture of folks only content on the surface while watching sports highlights and stuffing their faces with jalapeño poppers. If you’ve been to a bar in any rural American area, you know how painfully accurate that disappointing description often is.
Pleasant sticks with comedy at his own expense for the Side A closer, “Doctor Please” — both a condemnation of aging and the United States healthcare system. “I was going to do a fourth verse,” Pleasant sings at the bridge of the song, “but the pre-existing conditions in the first three verses make you ineligible for musical coverage at this time.”
Side B begins with “You’re Just Right,” a love-letter track comparing the object of his affection to seemingly benign things, like salad bars and dish-washing gloves. It comes off as effectively coy and charming.
“Moustache Man” is self-deprecating, as Pleasant mocks himself for selling cars and, of course, for having an especially large, bushy moustache, which he’s grown of late. It’s followed by “Mixed Tape,” which mourns the loss of mix tape culture, or tapes produced by holding a tape player’s microphone up to a radio to produce bootleg compilations of top 40 hits, and “Neck Tattoo” — a teasing look at those bold enough to tattoo their face: “I have a neck tattoo, because working retail is something I won’t do.”
Then comes “Excitedly Britannica,” a sleepy ballad dedicated to Americans overly enamored with British culture, “No burgers for me, fish and chips instead, telly is playing something from the BBC.”
At the close is the second serious highlight, “Sad Rock ‘n’ Roll Story,” a lament for Pleasant’s teenage punk rock days and his early band’s aspirations that never came close to coming true: “We thought we’d be playing arenas, even though we never impressed anyone that’d ever seen us.”
Pleasant — real name Wally Bullard — explained the track’s origins.
“I was 15 and my parents would drop me off at the drummer’s mom’s house every Saturday morning,” Pleasant said.” We didn’t even have a name, because we’d spend most of the time arguing about what we should name ourselves. ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ — that was about all we knew.”
After such a long hiatus, it’s a good thing that “Happy Hour” pushes Wally Pleasant’s music in a much more fleshed out direction, rather than treading the same old waters. It’s the title track, along with “Sad Rock ‘n’ Roll Story,” that make the album worth checking out.
Wally Pleasant 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26 $15 general, $10 student The Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing (989) 289-9729 www.therobintheatre.com