Deconstructed displays its dichotomy right off the bat. The sophomore missive from Birmingham, Alabama’s Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires opens with a greasy overdriven guitar riff and some howling gospel-inflected vocalizations from Bains. Twenty-five seconds into “The Company Man,” the drums and bass kick in and it’s pure boogie, twin guitars trading twangy licks over a muscular Muscle Shoals shuffle. It is quantifiably, undeniably Southern rock that will emanate from the stage at The Southern Café and Music Hall on Friday night.
But what Bains sings about is hardly the stuff of typical Southern rock. “The Company Man”’s opening verse invokes and eviscerates Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who was responsible for some of the most brutal tactics against Civil Rights marchers and demonstrators, but who proudly sat in church on Sunday like he has no sins to confess: “Putting profits in the black with businessmen on Sunday / Monday morning, beating prophets black and blue.”
Instead of relaxing in Dixie cliches—booze, barbeque, and banjos—Bains tears apart and examines the long-lasting effects of the South’s pock-marked history, racism and regressive politics. “We were raised on ancient truths and ugly old lies,” Bains twangs on the title track of his latest record with The Glory Fires. In doing so he’s announcing himself as the latest in a long line of rebel sons who question the tortured legacy of the South while celebrating its identity, reckoning the region’s burgeoning present while reflecting on the issues of class, privilege, and history that still scar the South.
“[Dereconstructed] in part, was my trying to sort of tease out the legacy of Reconstruction in contemporary Southern identities,” said Bains. “In particular, the way Reconstruction has sort of played itself out in the political landscape of the South and the way in which identity has become politicized. I was just trying with this album to sort of smash that dualistic way of thinking about identity, and instead consider the nuances of personal identity as it relates to culture. And do that through focusing on my own experience in my place and culture and family, rather than, you know, holding up these sort of monolithic ideas as gospel.”
Bains’ songs burn with a fierce intelligence and fiery spirit, sounding celebratory while delving into difficult subject matter. On “The Weeds of Downtown,” he laments the gentrification of downtown Birmingham (“I know the new architecture’s largely depressing / And the politics are pretty regressive”) but nonetheless beams with hometown pride (“I know Birmingham gets you down/But look what it raised you up to be.”) “We Dare Defend Our Rights!” turns Alabama’s state motto on its ear, from good-ol’-boy Lost Cause statement of pride to caustic punk sneer. The title track rallies against the South having its regional identity defined by popular perception: “They wanted meth labs and mobile homes/They wanted moonlight and magnolias,” he belts on the title track, “We gave ‘em songs about taking your own damn stand/In spite of those who’d define and control you.”
Dereconstructed’s themes seem universal, Bains insists that the record just explores one man’s complicated relationship to a complicated region, one man’s attempt at reconciling a home he loves with unpleasant truths. Even though he writes about history, public figures, and marginalized classes, he argues he can only do so through the lens of his own experience. He’s a dude with an opinion who doesn’t pretend to speak for anyone other than himself, but Bains nonetheless forcefully challenges the notion of a singular or even binary representation of the American South.
“There are as many Souths as there are Southerners,” he said. “You could ask everybody in our band—we’re all born and raised in Birmingham—what Birmingham is like, and we would all have different responses. And we’re all white, middle-class, straight men. So, you know, asking a middle-aged black lesbian from West Birmingham is going to give you a different answers, and each is just as valid. So I don’t like to speak authoritatively about the South.”
Even so, Bains feels he has a part to play. “I’m trying to figure out my own way and my own sort of conception of what the South is to me,” he said. “And I hope that in doing that aloud, I can maybe make room for other people to do that, who feel like they haven’t been allowed to wrest the South from the popular dominant perception.” —Patrick Wall