"I put my boots on one foot at a time like you, but that don't make me your friend," Brent Amaker sings convincingly on the song of the same name. And indeed, it's tough at times to know whether he's actually intent on resurrecting the spirit of Johnny Cash, or maybe just putting us all on. With a deep-throated vocal that sounds like the Man in Black wailing about a ring of fire, or perhaps Nick Cave summoning the spirit of yet another lost soul, Amaker and company establish cow punk cred and create a dark demonic sound Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone could cull for a soundtrack to some weird and wacked-out western. Despite a sound that's often ominous, unsettling and fearlessly foreboding, "Year of the Dragon" sometimes seems like an extended joke, one where the punch line is repeated ad nauseam throughout its 13 entries.
That then is the essential dilemma. While Amaker and his colleagues transition easily from upbeat shuffles like Captain of the Ship and Time to Set Things Straight to the double time delivery of One Idea and Country Sky, there's little here that varies from that template. The general frenzy remains intact, while the campy feel could discourage anyone other than the most hardcore enthusiasts from digging in deeper. On the other hand, it's likely that they can connect more convincingly in concert, where their gimmickry can engage, entertain and create a visceral impact.
Even so, there's no need to downplay Amaker's efforts. Clearly, the band possesses an astute appreciation of the signature sound of rockabilly, twang and early rock 'n' roll, particularly as birthed in the '50s and '60s. Yet, the kitschier side of their delivery, not to mention the odder aspects of their sound, might put off anyone expecting some sort of highbrow satisfaction. Ultimately, Brent Amaker and the Rodeo are the kind of band much most likely to attract a dedicated cult following, one that can embrace their eccentricity with unapologetic appreciation.