Bobby Bare, Jr. has the heart of a poet and the soul of a drunk who can be counted on to tell some funny stories at the bar on Friday night. Or is it the heart of a drunk and the soul of a poet? Whatever the case, Bare has perfected the art of wearing his heart on his sleeve while spinning musical shaggy dog stories that can be either hilarious or harrowing, and he once again reveals just how good he is at such things on his fourth album with his Young Criminals' Starvation League, 2014's Undefeated. Musically, this is an adventurous set, as Bare and his bandmates eagerly detour their country-accented rock and pop through echoey lo-fi thunder on the title track, conjure clouds of distorted guitars and organs on "North of Alabama by Mornin'," embrace hissy drum boxes and cheesy organ on "The Big Time," and dive deep into witty yet creepy keyboard-driven pop on "The Elegant Imposter." As for Bare's songs, busted relationships seem to be on his mind on Undefeated, as he ponders how parenthood ruined his relationship on "My Baby Took My Baby Away" (a song that could have been written by a Southern-accented Harry Nilsson), takes rueful aim at an ex and himself in "If She Cared," mentally checks out on "Don't Wanna Know," and nails down the various points of a breakup in "As Forever Became Never Again." Bare and his bandmates don't try to force humor when it doesn't belong on Undefeated, but there is a certain woozy wit that snakes in and out of several of these tunes despite the heartache and occasional bad feelings, and Bare and his bandmates give these songs just the right instrumental attack, tight yet ambling, and this ranks with Bare's best work since Bare Jr. called it a day. You don't want to choose Bobby Bare, Jr. to be your designated driver, but if you want him to sum up your day and your week, he's up to the challenge, and Undefeated is a revealing set of songs that spins gold from life's big and little ups and downs. ~ Mark Deming
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