Corb Lund may not have come to Americana music in the most straightforward way (not because he's Canadian, but because he cut his teeth as a performer in the punk band the Smalls), but over the course of seven albums he's proven far more adept with the genre than most of his contemporaries. Cabin Fever, the singer-songwriter's latest, is a politically charged set that finds Lund at his quick-witted best, drawing favorable comparisons to the likes of Fred Eaglesmith and Todd Snider. If Lund occasionally gets a bit too arch and ironic for his own good, the otherwise unimpeachable quality of his songwriting makes Cabin Fever a whip-smart, essential listen.
The album takes a not always sympathetic look at the lives of those on the fringes of the current economic downturn, and Lund enthusiastically hops between first-person tales of desperation, paranoia, and sleaze. Opener "Gettin' Down on the Mountain," with its sinewy blues groove and handwringing about paper currency and HAM radio handles, could very well be the theme song to a show like Doomsday Preppers, while "(You Ain't a Cowboy) If You Ain't Been Bucked Off" subverts the genre stereotypes of its central imagery with a mile-wide streak of self-loathing. Lund is joined by like-minded troubadour Hayes Carll on "Bible on the Dash," in which the singers trade verses about keeping a Bible prominently displayed in their band's touring rig as a way of getting off the hook with cops who might pull them over. As funny as the song is, it's also perfectly in keeping with the album's broader theme of figuring out how to get by in arduous circumstances.
Lund's sense of humor informs standout cuts like the macabre "Dig Gravedigger Dig" and the spectacularly titled "Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner," but it's his attention to detail that makes his writing so exceptional. The lyrics of "Mein Deutsches Motorrad" make terrific use of internal repetitions, and both "Pour 'Em Kinda Strong" and "One Left in the Chamber" hinge on artfully executed third-act reversals. Lund's narratives are novel and off-kilter in their subject matter and airtight in their construction, and songs like "Drink It Like You Mean It" and "The Gothest Girl I Can" prove that he also knows his way around a memorable hook.
Producer Steve Christensen accentuates those hooks with some diverse arrangements that draw more heavily from traditional blues, cowpunk, and rockabilly than from the folk styling that makes so many Americana albums too dire and self-serious. The rowdy, unpolished aesthetic is perfectly matched to Lund's tales of hard living, and the lack of refinement in the arrangements both nods to Lund's punk-rock roots and allows the album to move from the swampy blues of "Dig Gravedigger Dig" to the western swing of "Cows Around" without losing any sense of cohesion.
If there's a knock against Cabin Fever, it's that Lund's POV can occasionally come across as condescending toward his chosen subject matter. Coupled with his droll, wise-ass persona, the timbre of Lund's voice and his tendency to speak-sing through the verses of his songs often makes him a dead ringer for Snider. But Lund lacks Snider's fundamental sense of empathy. Songs like "Cows Around" and "The Gothest Girl I Can" are both funny enough when taken at face value, but their jokes are ultimately at the expense of the characters Lund has developed. But Lund's casual mean-streak wouldn't even be noteworthy as a minor problem were his narratives on Cabin Fever not so fully realized and authentic.