In the midst of a pandemic, Bandcamp has cemented itself as one of the best ways to watch musicians actually be musicians. Stumble upon the right band, like Little Pete riding his bike past just the right garage one afternoon, and you can watch them emerge, stumble, try something new, maybe even burn out. No matter your geographic locale, it can feel like cheering on your favorite local group. This is how it’s felt to keep tabs on North Carolina’s Al Riggs since 2016. Visit Al’s Bandcamp page and you’ll find that since 2016, they’ve released nine traditional albums, an “introduction”/best-of, two live albums and a handful of singles—and this ignores an electronic side project, and even a collaboration with the Love Language’s Stu McLamb called Criswell Brushes from earlier this year. Now, partnered with musician/producer Lauren Francis, they’ve released their tenth and best album to date.
Bile and Bone is the kind of record that usually emerges from out of nowhere, but in the context of Riggs’ previous releases, it feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work. Where previous releases were often self-produced and put out into the world as finished, this album gestated for nearly two years, including being “premiered” in the fall of 2019 with a complete live performance at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Hopscotch Festival.
But on top of the long road to its release are the myriad ways in which Riggs’ influences have been boiled down into their own sound. Riggs voice—a kind of soft, rumbling almost-spoken voice—recalls the delivery of singers like Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. When “Werewolf” kicks off the album with a song about, well, a night out with a werewolf boyfriend, the way that Riggs’ voice falls over itself delivering the line, “Now I’m your Southern peach/And I know you hate it when I say that,” is an element that properly sells a song that would seem silly on its surface. But when they wake up in each other’s arms in the morning, the werewolf privately fretting that he’d done something improper the night before, only for Riggs to reassure him that “what you did was just right,” it locks into place that this is a story that transcends its odd outlines.
“Apex Twin” mines a similar territory. If you follow Riggs on Twitter, you’ll soon see a penchant for off-kilter jokes, and “Apex Twin” (a pun on the electronic musician Aphex Twin and the Raleigh, North Carolina suburb of Apex) is clearly one they were proud of. A song about a string-theory version of themselves that never leaves their home town, it mulls over what that person is doing back in their town. “The Richardson Spite House” takes the concept of a spite house and transfers it to a polyamorous relationship where a third wheel has become just that. The title track is a dark rumination on what it means to live in a place where a “cardboard Confederate flag” is always flying and leaders are as much a representative of the “bile and bone” contained in the ‘heritage not hate’ of the aforementioned object.
A lot of Riggs’ previous albums buoyed these kind of lyrical forays with guitar and sometimes drum machines and not a lot else. But Lauren Francis’ additions to the album are unquestionably crucial to why Bile and Bone hits so hard. Keyboards, synthesizer sounds, and additional guitars are all there to make Riggs’ quotidian descriptors come more to life, maybe nowhere more sharply than the album’s centerpiece love song “Boyfriend Jacket, Boyfriend Sweater.” Written some time before our current pandemic, its surface story of the respective work days of a couple, of the shared clothing between the two, is a warm tale of the ways that we take the people we love with us in ways both physical and emotional. From our current perspective, it’s a remembrance of things past, of ways we used to live, and what we strive to hold on to through all this, whether through the bile brought up by who put us here, or the bone that connects us to each other. | j neas