As the title suggests, "Border Radio," the fourth album from John Baumann, the Austin singer-songwriter and member of The Panhandlers, plants us squarely in southwestern Texas. Yet, there's another borderline at play, that between authentic and commercial country. There's no doubt that Baumann is a strong writer, and he has some gems among this group, but the sound, at least in the first half, is rather homogenous, and songs carry the usual subjects of driving, drinking, hunting and living a bit recklessly. Maybe it's just his way of making the songs more accessible to draw us into those in the second half of this fine album.
He begins in Springsteen "Born to Run" fashion with "Gold El Camino," a heavily strummed ode to the open highway that wherever one goes "the radio is tuned to radio static." "Revving Engines, River Street" downshifts to a medium tempo, but he's still "throwing that throttle down," desiring to escape the town where some sort of violence usually looms. "South Texas Tradition" references Permian shale, leaving little doubt of where we are while these lyrics could apply to almost any country song – "Got ice in the Igloo and shells in my vest/Got a Jerry Jeff bootleg, 1988/I'm going to open a cold one when I pull through the gate." The boys are bent on a good time.
The title track marks a bit of a turning point in the album thematically, and it grows stronger sonically. The song is an original, not The Blasters one of the same name. It's yearning, associating the radio airplay with one he longs for across the Rio Grande. "My Heart Belong To You" is a warm piano-, string-bathed ballad. Yet, the amps turn up to 10 for the rocker "Saturday Night Comes Once a Week," reminiscent of the late Jimmy LaFave who believed that after a few ballads, a straight ahead rocker was in order. Baumann requisitely colors "The Night Before the Day of the Dead" in melancholy tones and sustains that vibe through the haunting "Turning Gold." The closer "Boys Town" is a clever reference not to a YMCA alternative, but to Tijuana and the lure of prostitutes. Baumann knows his turf and is not at all bashful about exposing its virtues along with its underside.