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Drakkar Sauna pays tribute to troubled men

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“River of Jordan” performed by Drakkar Sauna, from Wars and Tornadoes (Marriage Records):

The two men in Drakkar Sauna dress well. Not as stiffly as businessmen or as darkly as undertakers. More like the kind of men you'd meet at a church picnic. On the stage at Jackpot Music Hall, Jeff Stolz and Wallace Cochran wear 10-gallon hats and button-down shirts. They are joined by an ensemble of bassists, banjo players and guitarists as good-looking as Buddy Holly's Crickets.

"We dressed up like cowboys," Stolz jokes to the audience. Cochran disagrees and insists they're not joking. Between songs, Cochran wonders aloud about astronauts and recites passages from Alan Ginsberg's "America." He leads the audience in a joyous call-and-response song about the imminent death of their loved ones. Everyone you love will get diabetes! Really? Really! The mustachioed men share a dark sense of humor, based both on the terror of being alive and the joy of not giving a shit. Everyone you love is damaging their kidneys! Really? Really!

The Jackpot show celebrates the band's newest album, a tribute to the country duo the Louvin Brothers. Wars and Tornadoes is the fourth lovely and peculiar Drakkar Sauna recording. Its production values are higher than those of the home-recorded Rover and the epic Jabraham Lincoln, but it retains its charm nonetheless. It was recorded live with friends and friends of friends, free of that NPR alt-country polish that ruins everything it touches. Some of the Louvins' songs, such as the haunting "Are You Afraid to Die?" complement Drakkar Sauna's own morbidity so well that the record sounds wholly original.

Multi-instrumentalist Stolz and guitarist Cochran met five years ago, when they worked on the soundtrack to Blood Feud, Cochran's B-movie about black marketeers. Asked if the movie, now out of print, is bad, Cochran answers with a qualified yes: "It's amateurish to a distracting extent, but there are really good moments." Their collaboration outlived the movie and begat Drakkar Sauna, a country band born of an amateur comedy about multiple sclerosis and medical collectibles.

For the past five years, Drakkar Sauna has made idiosyncratic folk music incorporating kazoos, whistles, stomps, tambourine shoe, carousel harmophone and barroom piano, completed by the close harmonies of Stolz and Cochran. Even when they sing in French, they sing well: Stolz croons, and Cochran wails. Their lyrics, easy and eloquent, point to meticulous songwriting. From a song on Rover, for instance: I prayed for God to kill me/I prayed that he would kill you, too/One day he's gonna get 'round to my prayers/I wonder which one he'll choose.

The songs explore classic country themes — women, depression, the Bible — with frequent references to pirates, spies and famous assassinations. Rover, the band's first album, includes the cautionary tale "Spear for When the Bear Comes." The second album, Drakkansasauna, revisits the allegory, quickens it, adds maracas and ambient vocals, and renames it "Spear for When the Bear Comes From Space." Third album Jabraham Lincoln pictures pro wrestler Harley Race rising out of the ocean like Neptune under siege by navy cannons. "My main influence," Cochran says matter-of-factly, "is Georgia." Beyond that, he says, "World Championship Wrestling on the Superstation."

Compared with these albums, Wars and Tornadoes might seem conservative. Its material shows uncharacteristic self-restraint and less vulgarity than, say, "There's Not Enough Tits on a Wolf." But given Drakkar Sauna's attraction to pretty songs and doomed heroics, Wars and Tornadoes makes sense. Stolz credits the Louvin Brothers as the inspiration for Drakkar Sauna's own warbling, heartaching harmonies. "I've had [the Louvins' boxed set] for years and years and years and listened to it for years and years and years and never really got tired of it," he says. Cochran describes the brothers' self-destructive habits: "They worked comedy into their sets, but they weren't funny. Charlie had a much better stage presence, yet Ira would walk all over him. Ira was a terrible religious hypocrite and was apparently tortured by it. He had hypergraphia [the compulsion to write] and at least elements of a temporal lobe disorder. They had no right to be good, but they were amazing."

The Louvins, Cochran continues, wrote concept albums well before the concept album had been named and popularized by rock musicians. Weapon of Prayer, for example, was designed as a response to the Korean War. "Every song on it is about either soldiers writing home or soldiers going away," Cochran says. Satan Is Real addressed the brothers' fear of hell. Another album compiled Dear John letters in song.

The Louvins also recorded covers albums — many country artists do — including tributes to the Delmore Brothers and Roy Acuff. The Louvin Brothers stopped making music in 1963 and pursued separate careers, though Charlie enjoyed more success than the alcoholic, self-flagellating Ira. After years of addiction, Ira Louvin died at the hands of a drunk driver in Williamsburg, Missouri. Charlie Louvin surprised Drakkar Sauna during its Nashville tour stop last year, where he showed up at an in-store performance and joined in for the last two songs.

"He's an old man, so we were able to be reverentially respectful and he wasn't put off by it," Cochran says.

"He called Wallace a weirdo," Stolz says.

"Yeah, we gave him the CD, and he wanted two more. He called me a weirdo for not taking the money and tried to stuff cash in my hand." Cochran sounds at least a little honored. Asked if Charlie Louvin was flattered by Drakkar Sauna's tribute, he demurs. "I mean — maybe, but to assume he was flattered would require a certain amount of hubris."

Neither Stolz nor Cochran seems anything but proud of the abilities. "I only know five chords," Cochran says. "I never took mandolin lessons or guitar lessons, and that's usually apparent when we play." But they often doff their cowboy hats to other local performers and collaborators. They take compliments quietly, and remember bad reviews well. "We've gotten a couple of shit sandwiches," Stolz says.

But Wars and Tornadoes proves that Drakkar Sauna is good beyond gimmicks. It reveals the band's musical intuition and folk fluency and allows Cochran and Stolz to pay their respects to those who came before.

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