For too many years, there’s been an annoying irony to The Championship’s moniker. The Milwaukee band has put out four records, including the new High Feather, and they’ve all been great. At its core, The Championship is a bar band—in the sense that the songs hit the deepest when you’re planted on a bar stool and three whiskeys into a long and misbegotten evening, and also because these guys are still literally playing taverns, amid the same drunken sadsacks that populate their songs, probably in your town as we speak. Of course, there’s a lot more craft and shadowy atmosphere in this music than you get from the typical group grinding out “Mustang Sally” at some anonymous drinking hole. Much of it comes courtesy of the group’s singer-songwriter Joe Crockett, who is blessed with a rich baritone voice and a knowing eye for the stray details of small-town life. Like Bruce Springsteen or Jeff Tweedy, Crockett’s gift is taking what he’s absorbed from his audience and projected it back in the form of sadly alluring yet insistently hopeful rock songs that demand to be played loud out of car windows and queued up on jukeboxes when nobody is ready to go home and face reality just yet.
The “annoying irony” part of all this is that The Championship—a name that radiates such triumph and dominance—remain a woefully underrated band. The band’s excellent 2005 debut Dance Casador! should have made them stars (it’s the best My Morning Jacket record that MMJ hasn’t made since It Still Moves), and 2008’s gorgeous country-rock detour Midnight Golden deserved to be known—more widely known anyway—as one of the great late-night make-out records of recent years. By the time of the 2009 EP Moving At The Speed Of Darkness, The Championship was shaking off the steel-guitars and grasping for an arena-ready sound inspired by the hard-rock stomp of Black Mountain and the anthemic pop of brilliant Canadian rocker Sam Roberts. Speed Of Darkness was a transitional work, an interesting rest stop on the way to a destination that looked promising but was still intriguingly out of sight.
High Feather shows that The Championship has fully returned to its full creative prowess, and is now ready to scale new heights. It represents a perfect melding of everything The Championship does well. These are sturdy songs delivered with disarming directness, with a quiet yearning to break free and be bigger than themselves. “My heart goes out to you,” Crockett sings on the album’s best song, and he makes you believe it on the rest of High Feather, delivering eight songs that you’ll want to hear again as soon as they’re finished. Play it loud, and tell your friends.