One of my favorite Americana discoveries over the past year has without a doubt been The Honeycutters. This five-piece band from North Carolina brings a dedicated country sound to their music, with lead singer Amanda Platt also serving as the chief songwriter. Last year’s album, Me Oh My, was a solid country album with 14 songs that never peaked beyond a mid-tempo range in the production. As good a songwriter as Platt is, the songs seemed to sit in a safe, traditional country region with several songs about cheating, love, or lost souls hooking up for one night. But with the band’s fourth album the monotony is gone. On The Ropes shows more versatility from The Honeycutters with a bit of rock and pop influence in the production, while still keeping the songs firmly planted in country music. The songs and lyrics are richer, exploring more topics, and Platt’s vocals sound as good as ever.
The album begins with the title track, where the phrase “on the ropes” is used in the boxing sense, also coming full circle with the album cover. The boxing metaphor for the song is used to describe a relationship falling apart, and how she’ll continue to fight her fight and not give in. “On the Ropes” is more upbeat, setting the tone for the album. “Blue Besides” deals with the realities of growing up and moving on from a once comfortable life. Starting a new chapter isn’t easy, and takes its toll on you, and Platt highlights the struggles of the process. The production kicks up halfway through the song, making this an easy to listen song.
“Golden Child” has a bit more rock flair to it with an electric guitar leading the production. This is also one of several songs where the organ chimes into mix. “Golden Child” continues on with the more upbeat tone of the beginning of the album. “The Handbook” seems to combine some pop influences into the mix, while also having the most traditional sounding country music of the entire album. The steel guitar owns the production, but with the electric keyboards and pop nuances in the song’s delivery. It’s a unique style for the song, one I enjoy listening to.
On The Ropes slows down with “The Only Eyes.” This is a tried and true country love song where Platt sings of how her past failed relationships have left her heart heavy and eyes blue. But even with her past experiences, she knows that she’s in love and that these are the only eyes she could have to be able to see this love. It’s one of the better written songs on the album. The Honeycutters explore a nice mix of rock and country in “Back Row.” With the electric guitar, organ, and harmonica mixed into the production, “Back Row” has a heavier tone, fitting with the song’s content. Platt sings of a man who’s down on his luck, in need of prayers and support, who may be too prideful to admit he needs help. The extended solo over the last minute of the song is excellent, giving the backing band members a chance to shine on the album.
Another great example of Platt’s songwriting is “Useless Memories.” It’s another slower song, but the stripped back production allows the story to sink in. “Useless Memories” touches returning to your old home, a house now abandoned, dusty, and run-down. The subject is clearly running away from real life, and using the distractions of memories from his or her younger years to avoid whatever he or she is running from. “Piece of Heaven” deals with lost love. Platt sings in the first person about how she tried to keep her lover at a arm’s length, only to be surprised when he had enough and left her all alone. And now that she’s had what she calls a piece of heaven, she’s searching to find it again.
The Honeycutters break out their honky-tonk side with “Let’s Get Drunk.” The rowdier guitar and keyboards fill the production as Platt sings about a woman who’s ready to be rowdy and reckless for the night. The song isn’t really anything special, but it’s a fun listen nonetheless. “500 Pieces” explores the broken hearts of those who’ve lost love along the way. The steel guitar rings as Platt sings about trying to alleviate the pain from the brokenness. The Honeycutters strip the production down all the way to a single electric guitar on “Ache.” This breakup song deals with a prideful woman who doesn’t want to admit that how hurt she is to see a man walk out of her life. For a song dealing with vulnerability like this, I love the decision to use one heavy guitar to compliment the lyrics. It’s easy to overlook this song playing the album in the background, but it’s one to pay attention to.
The band takes a stab at covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and do a justifiable job in my opinion. There’s many different covers of the song out there, but The Honeycutters truly make it their own with the steel guitars and production fitting nicely into the band’s musical niche, with a bluegrass like style to the song. On The Ropes comes to a close with “Barmaid’s Blues.” Set in an old western town with horses, cowboys, and saloons, Platt sings about the local barmaid who copes with the fact that there are no eligible bachelors available for her. The song starts out slow as the stage is set, but the production picks up after about two minutes, and carries the song and the story that keep you entertained until the end.
Unlike their previous album, I think On the Ropes shows The Honeycutters stretching themselves into new territories with the music and lyrics. It’s a welcome evolution in their music, as the album flows nicely between songs without sounding repetitive. The best thing about their additional styles and influences is that the band keeps it decidedly country throughout every song. The Honeycutters are a band worth listening to, and they keep getting better.