As huge as country music is Down Under, Youth Group singer Toby Martin is rendered temporarily speechless when asked if he has a shitkicker streak. The question, however, is a valid one. Tucked away on the Australian quartet's classic-college-rock breakthrough, Skeleton Jar, are two tracks shot through with country gold. The Uncle Tupelo--esque "Drowned" boasts sweeping pedal steel, and "Piece of Wood" features the kind of melancholy guitar work we've come to expect from Iron & Wine.
"Shitkicker... Wait---is that a country-music term?" Martin asks, on the line from New York City, where the Youth Group is headlining at the annual CMJ Music Marathon conference. "I've never heard that before, but I like it. Woooo---I'm going to use that! Yeah, I like country music a lot---I grew up listening to it. In the '20s and '30s it was by far the most popular music form in Australia. It still sells well and has a loyal following---a lot of the lyrical content of being a cowboy translates really well."
The Youth Group knows something about translating on foreign shores, as Skeleton Key has become a career-jumpstarting indie hit in North America.
"I never expected to be able to do this full-time," says Martin, who formerly toiled away as an office administrator. "I always thought it would be a part-time job, but it's suddenly become something more. We've gone from touring Australia a couple of times a year to things like CMJ."
Released on Epitaph, the decidedly unpunky Skeleton Key has had plenty of champions, the most prominent of whom is Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, who offered the following much-repeated endorsement: "Skeleton Jar is sweet and dear and genuine in a world stolen by cynics....If you don't love them your heart is dead."
The album is indeed a winsome treasure, partly because of its often-melancholy take on indie rock and partly because of Martin's winning way with words. All broken-crystal guitars, "The Frankston Line" counter?balances lyrics about lost love and teenage-delinquent crime with the beautiful image of a sea stretching out to the horizon. The soft-focus "Baby Body" tells the story of a girl who not only hates the way she looks but also regrets her "career-ruining haircuts". And "Why Don't the Buildings Cry?" captures the dreariness of a million morning commutes when, over shimmering keyboards and slanted-and-enchanted distortion, Martin sings the simple, scene-setting lines "I catch the train/Stand side by side".
The singer's big skill is that he get his point across without being flashy. "When I was younger I would spend days on my lyrics trying to make them sound clever," says Martin, whose Youth Group opens for Death Cab at the Commodore on Monday and Tuesday (October 3 and 4). "Something I've learned to do is not work on them so much."
That doesn't make his songs any less transporting; if you've ever wondered what the outback might sound like at night, check out "Drowned", in which Martin creates a world where the cicadas ring in his ears. If there's a shitkicker heaven, the Youth Group has secured itself a place on the jukebox.