Dirty Horse: Listen but don’t say it out loud

by Richard Thomas

I didn’t get the double entendre to “Dirty Horse” until I went into a music store looking for the CD. As soon as I said the name to the clerk I realized I was saying “dirty whores.” She didn’t bat an eye, probably having heard every depraved band name in the book, but I was mortified. 

Later I asked a feminist friend if the name was offensive to women and she said, “Eh, doesn’t bother me.” Still, if they ever get picked up by a major label, I envision a Fran-Drescher-from-Spinal-Tap executive insisting they change it: “Get out of the ‘60s, we don’t have this mentality anymore.”

None of the lyrics are offensive or even dirty. P.S., the store didn’t have the CD – need to step up your marketing game, Horses – but I found it on Amazon. (It’s also on Spotify and iTunes.) At least the band inspired me to finally figure out streaming (the subject of the second track, “Radio”).

Dirty Horse is another project of Nate Case, also of the countrified (and quieter) Lowland Lakers. Case classifies the Horse as “pontoon rock,” which is “like yacht rock, just on a shittier boat,” he says. 

On one level it does have a bit of the smooth melodiousness of the ‘70s music which, in the 2000s, became branded as yacht rock: Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Toto. Case’s voice is full and resonant enough to fill a yacht, but if anything he sounds like the late great southerner, Lowell George of Little Feat.

Underlying the smoothness is a punk-metal-rockabilly roughness, provided by the aggressively skilled musicians: Andy Olmstead on guitar, Brian Wells on bass and Rio Daugherty on drums. Olmstead and Case are the songwriting team with the former providing the rough (chords and riffs) and the latter providing the smooth (lyrics and vocal melodies).

The opening track, “Document” (another unfortunate name; I thought it was a generic text file) is poignant for a hard rock song: the narrator has reached the point in a relationship where he has to reveal the less savory aspects (or “documents”) of his personality, though it might chase away the object of his affection: “If you want I will share my debt … If you don’t, ain’t no sweat at all.” He’s probably lying about that last part.

There’s barely a chorus and the second half is an instrumental section that keeps going until it closes the song. There’s no basic AABA format here; the path is more linear, building in intensity. This pattern is also repeated effectively in the sixth track, “Well Nourished,” and the closer, “Monster of a Man.” Most of the songs structurally veer into unexpected directions. My only gripe is they’re all too efficient, clocking in at an average 4-5 minute range. I didn’t want them to end.

“Radio,” the shortest cut (2:51), punches up the speed as if to pack in as much music as possible in the brief time span. “Silverwings” keeps up the speed but as a rockabilly tune. It seems inspired by a uncomfortable flight (“I flew up on silverwings in turbulence, I was checking things that was waking me up from the sleep that I was never bound to get”) to an uncertain future. (“I need to feel what the city has for me with my lonely time, I’ve only just arrived.”) “These Streets” is medium-paced but has a great momentum, aided by stereo that shifts the instruments around. 

The speed picks up again with “Steady Routine,” which is steady only in its relentlessness. The words are odd for a fast song, about someone whose routine is to withdraw from the world and find solace only in sleep. (“I will go with you at midnight, that’s when I will rest my head.”)

The metallic, hypnotic “Beautifully Sequenced” is the heaviest and longest track at over six minutes, and what it lacks in speed it makes up for in power. “I found some peace at heart” is the most-repeated line. No, he hasn’t.

The album peaks with the aforementioned “Monster of a Man.” The subject is sweet, if not of great social and political import: a guy who’s large, ugly and deliriously happy because he’s found love, like an alternate ending to “Bride of Frankenstein.” Or maybe it’s a Sully/Boo thing out of “Monsters Inc.” It’s purposely vague.

The upbeat tone buoys the music which starts pleasantly, almost passable as yacht rock. Then Case hits his stride with gospel-like vocals, raising the song to another level. Then the singing is replaced by a joyful, extended instrumental jam that by the end leaves the listener either suspended in air or an emotional wreck. It’s true. I can’t listen to this song without bawling. (My height? 6’ 6”. Why, what’s your point?)