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Flat Tops 

The rise of Fourkiller Flats.

Dozens of at-least-decent bands flounder for years, scrambling to generate a following sizeable enough to warrant continued bookings. Toiling away in a half-empty room is a thankless task, not for the weak-hearted or thin-skinned.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule, and the members of Fourkiller Flats, an alt-country combo that combines elements of post-punk rock (e.g., lots of starts and stops) with a decidedly country bent, have found themselves in that enviable position since the group's inception.

The band sprouted from a pair of acoustic shows that singer/guitarist Jim Cox and guitarist/mandolinist Jim Peeken played at the Double Zero and the late, lamented Plaza Pub, comprising a dozen or so old-school country covers, and aided by co-vocals from Cathy Rivers. Peeken hadn't played out since his high school days, and though Cox was a veteran of several local bands, it was the first time he had sung lead in public.

"I've never been so nervous in my life," Cox says. Peeken adds, "I was dripping sweat, and it wasn't even hot."

Still, the first show impressed La Cerca leader Andy Gardner enough to volunteer his services as drummer, and shortly following a brief stint by a temporary bassist, Neal Bonser and James Stanley were added on lead guitar and bass, respectively. The band began taking any gigs it could, and green-gilled Peeken was excited enough to be playing in a band that he took to what he calls "shameless self-promotion," begging anyone he could to show up to Flats shows.

Before long, word-of-mouth spread and the band gained a loyal and steadily growing following--so loyal, in fact, that the fans began asking if the band had CDs for sale. The only recorded material the band had at that point was a five-song demo, recorded at Wavelab for intended use as a promotional tool to get gigs and to send out to labels. Eventually the group began burning 20 or so copies of the demo before each gig, and almost without fail sold out at each show.

Around this time, encouraged by the tremendous headway the band had made in a relatively short time, the Flats began discussing the possibility of touring. Gardner, who had his hands full with his own band, wasn't ready to make that kind of commitment to the new band, says Cox. The Flats found a replacement in Bill Green, who not only aptly filled the drum stool, but also was able to provide the harmony vocals that Gardner had brought to the group, and which serve as a major element in the band's sound. This is the lineup that remains to this day.

After taking a summer hiatus, Fourkiller Flats headed back into Wavelab to record its first proper full-length album, self-titled and self-released, which will be issued this week. The disc's 10 tracks (plus an inside-joke telephone conversation between Peeken and an ex-girlfriend) will be familiar to those who frequent the band's shows, essentially comprising the bulk of the band's original tunes not found on the EP.

The songs' overwhelming charm is their sense of effortlessness, the feeling that they have always somehow existed, but were just looking for the right band to play them. Highlights include "Go Get Gone," which boasts a downright anthemic chorus that's hard to shake; "El Camino," which pounds open with the memorable couplet "I woke up in a cell in the town of Las Cruces / Jim Beam sweat, I'm not sure what the truth is," before hitting its wistful minor-key chorus; "National Vacation," a quintessential power ballad, evoking visions of irony-free lighters waving back and forth in mid-air; and "Understated," an infectiously stuttering rocker and perhaps the cut that best represents the band's gritty live performances.

Throughout the course of the disc, Cox's whiskey 'n' Reds-ravaged voice (in the best way) authentically delivers variations on roots music's tried and true themes of ugly romance and how to escape it (i.e., murder, lies, drink, cheating and cars), while Bonser's guitar always seems to hit the exact note needed to drive the point home, equal parts substance and style. It's a formula that's served the band well so far, and as some backwoods dweller once said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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