Album Review – Waco Brothers’ ‘Going Down in History’

Waco Brothers Going Down in History

Many people are well aware of the rise of pop country in the 1990s that dominated radio and mainstream attention. The likes of Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Rimes and Shania Twain led the charge. But meanwhile a counterculture movement broke out in response to it and that was alt-country. The name most associated with alt-country of course is Steve Earle, but another group who made their name at the same time were the Waco Brothers. The five-piece band is based out of Chicago, unsurprisingly part of the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. They’re made up of Dean Schlabowske, Joe Camarillo, Jon Langford, Tracey Dear and Alan Doughty. For the first time in 11 years, they’ve released a formal studio album, Going Down in History. And they certainly live up to their reputation of a hard rocking country band who know how to make entertaining music.

You get a great taste of the Waco Brothers’ country meets punk rock style on “DIYBYOB.” It’s country in sound, but punk rock in nature. Being the group’s first studio album since 2005, it’s a nice introduction for new fans who may just be finding out about this alt-country group. The crunchy guitar riffs that rear it’s head throughout “We Know It” will instantly be a crowd favorite at live shows. How could a fun song like this not be entertaining? “Receiver” is a gritty rocker about life and death. The infectious guitar riffs in this song will certainly get you bobbing your head as you listen to it. The same can be said of the following song “Building Our Own Prison.” The song is a commentary on the current state of the country and how they see things playing out. It’s one of those songs on the album where it’s definitely more rock than country, but it’s a reminder of the band’s versatility.

One of my favorite songs on Going Down on History is “All or Nothing.” It tells the story of a man trying to make a woman see his way of thinking and how things could work out between them. He wants “all or nothing,” but it’s not going to happen. I love the gospel-tinged feel given by the organ in the background of the song and adds an almost anthem-like feel to the song. “Had Enough” is one of the hardest rockers on the album. It’s the type of song you want to put on after a long day of work and crank the volume to 11 as you get some anger off your chest. The title kind of says it all. This is followed by “Lucky Fool,” which is about a man who proclaims how lucky he has been to have this woman in his life. But now she wants to walk out and he pleads for her not to leave. I love the sense of urgency in the vocals, really selling how crestfallen the man is to lose this woman in his life.

The album’s title track is another song that tackles life and death. It’s one of those songs where you have to interpret for yourself what they’re getting at, which I can not only say about this song, but many songs on this album. For those who like music with concrete themes, you might not like this song. But for those who want music that makes them think, I think you’ll enjoy this song. I can say the same about “Devil’s Day.” But one thing I enjoy more about “Devil’s Day” is the guitar play, which draws me into the song. Going Down in History closes out with “Orphan Song.” It’s a honkytonking song about camaraderie and friendship. The fiddle play is great throughout, along with the piano play mixed in with the band’s consistently solid guitar play. It really ends the album with a bang and is definitely one of the standouts on it.

The Waco Brothers’ Going Down in History is an entertaining album that may not blow you away in the lyrics department, but most certainly instrumentation-wise. After listening to an album from the Waco Brothers you will most likely come away with the conclusion that they would be best heard live and I would agree. If the Waco Brothers are ever in your area, I would recommend seeing them because I can imagine all of these songs better in a live environment. They’re meant to be heard in a crowd full of people looking for a fun time. The Waco Brothers are the perfect live band, capturing the energy of a rock band and the sensibilities of a country band. Going Down in History is a fun album that you can throw on and connect with from the first listen.

Grade: 8/10

 

Album Review – Harvest Thieves Make Solid Debut With ‘Rival’

Rival

The Texas music scene produced a lot of great music in 2015. And to start off 2016 this doesn’t seem to be changing, as some new music out of Texas will kick this year off the right way. Meet alt-country/Americana band Harvest Thieves. They’re based out of Austin, Texas and part of the label Holy Mountain Sounds. Harvest Thieves is made up of frontman Cory Reinisch (vocals/guitar), Dustin Meyer (vocals/bass), Annah Fisette (vocals/mandolin/keyboard), Coby Tate (guitar) and Wes Cargal (drums). Together they create a pretty unique sound, mostly blending garage rock and traditional country (with a few more influences here and there) to create a folksy, punk vibe in their music. But what’s the best about this is you’ll never know what you’re going to hear next. You’ll become intrigued by Harvest Thieves from the very beginning on their debut album Rival.

The album begins with the folk rock frenzy that is “Bob Dylan’s 78th Hangover.” The song is surprisingly catchy and you’ll find yourself hooked by song’s end. It’s a journey song based off a bender front man Reinisch experienced. “I was at a point where I had some important decisions to make and went about it in a way that purposely took me out of a place of comfort and complacency,” he explains. “I tried to soak up every experience, every person, and ultimately every open bottle I could find to help process. It was exhausting. I suppose it’s about discovering a balance through which to alternate between life’s extremes. Success and failure. Love and loss. Great potential and disastrous shortcomings.”

Heartbreak is the central theme of “Your Damn Vanity.” Like the city of Austin, a husband finds his wife and himself not be the same people they used to be. All of these changes have made him cynical towards love and life. He wishes his now ex-wife nothing but the worst while he sits and drowns his sorrows. The lyrics are dark, but very well written and make for an excellent heartbreak song. “The Least Of These” is steel guitar driven tune about a man who does what he pleases and follows the beat of his own drum, damn what everyone is saying around him. But he owns up to all of it. And perhaps what drives this attitude is a woman who claimed to love him, but he knew she didn’t have the “purest heart” and bid her farewell. So in the end you feel some sympathy towards this man, yet also envious of his honest lifestyle.

Reinisch and Fisette duet throughout “I Killed Laura Palmer.” This song has a psychedelic rock vibe, yet traditional country vibe too, from the instrumentation to the lyrics. It’s so weird, yet so alluring. What is this song alluding to? Is it about covering up murder? Is it about life? Ultimately I think it’s about how we all daydream of what we desire and why we can’t reach that desire now. This is definitely one of the standouts of this album. Electric guitars meet fiddles in “Peruvian Valium,” a song about discovery and love. Two people find the calling of the world around them, but both know they love each other. As the final line of this song says, “So, keep me in mind, and I’ll keep you in mine.”

“Part-Timer’s Lament” is about a person parting ways with a lover or perhaps a family member. Regardless of who it is this person has stepped out of line and is now being removed from the other’s life. They did something that was unforgivable and now they must deal with never being in the other’s life anymore. It’s a very angry song, making the fast guitar licks appropriate, as it gives the song a tense feeling that comes when you part ways with a person. The upbeat and ominous “Upstage On The Front Page” follows. It’s about a guy warning the current boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend of the trouble she is going to cause him. He saw it for himself and warns the current boyfriend he better be more careful. He doesn’t say exactly what she will do to him, but it isn’t good and not something you want to be careless about.

Harvest Thieves really show off their storytelling chops on “Desolation Wildfire.” It’s about a man who lives in California and works in the mountains. He chops down his trees and gets his paycheck every Friday, which he blows on drinking and debauchery by Monday. He doesn’t have a wife, children or a lot of money and the only friend he has, his dog, is set to die soon. It’s a very desolate and lonely life. The instrumentation on this song is fantastic, as an unexpected saxophone solo shows up in the bridge. “Talk of Surrender” blends the lines of fighting in a war and fighting for someone you love. Using imagery from both, it leaves the listener wondering which exactly the song is about, when it’s really about both. “Predestined Arrangement” tackles life and the concept of destiny. The message of the song is you shouldn’t get too angry or worried about the way things are because everything is predestined before they happen. It seems to apply you make your own destiny, so you really shouldn’t surprised about what happens to you.

Harvest Thieves toy with metal themes and lyrics throughout this album, but it’s most evident on “History Teachers.” Some might interpret this song to be political, but I believe it’s more about fighting for what you believe in and the end you’ll get what you deserve. “Lancelot’s Blade” closes out Rival. Like many songs throughout this album it relies on vivid imagery and metaphors to paint an interesting picture in the listeners’ heads. The song is about the only way to find your way in life is block out all outside influences, close your eyes and listen to what your heart is telling you to do. Once these ties are “severed” that you can find happiness. It’s a very freeing, spiritual song that wraps up and sums up the album well.

The Austin-music scene is full of a lot of different country and Americana groups, some good and some bad. And I can say with certainty that Harvest Thieves is one of the good ones. They really don’t sound exactly any other group I’ve heard from the Texas scene recently, although they definitely have some similarities of groups like Cody Canada & The Departed and Micky & The Motorcars with the way they blend rock and country influences. What stood out most to me though about Rival was the deep and well-thought out lyrics throughout it. It’s a lot further along than many new acts I hear and this bodes well for their future. If you like any of the groups I mentioned above, you’ll definitely enjoy this band. Harvest Thieves is band you need to have on your radar, especially if you’re a fan of country and Americana from the Texas scene.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – The Bottle Rockets’ ‘South Broadway Athletic Club’

The Bottle Rockets South Broadway Athletic Club

Each year in country and Americana new acts emerge that take the public by storm. It’s always exciting to see. But it’s important too to not forget the acts that have built the foundation of the genres and are still rocking after all these years. This is just exciting too. The Bottle Rockets certainly fall into the latter, as this band was formed back in 1992. Founding members still in the group are lead vocalist/guitarist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann. The other two members of the group currently are John Horton (guitarist, joined in 2003) and Keith Voegele (bass/vocals, joined in 2005). Just last week via Bloodshot Records they released their 12th album, South Broadway Athletic Club. It’s safe to say this band still has “it,” as this is an album full of great Americana/alt-country.

South Broadway Athletic Club opens up with “Monday,” which is kind of appropriate. The song is about how it feels like it’s always Monday and how the rest of the week goes by so fast compared to that day. I can imagine this is how many of you reading this feel. Kudos to The Bottle Rockets for delivering a relatable theme that the everyday, average person can connect with. Rocking guitar licks play in “Big Lotsa Love.” It’s your standard love song that features some great instrumentation. “I Don’t Wanna Know” is about a man who wonders what his woman does when she isn’t around, but then realizes maybe he doesn’t want to know. Despite all of the rumors he is hearing about her, he just wants to remain blissfully ignorant. Once again I enjoy the guitar play too.

One of the most fun songs on the album is “Big Fat Nuthin’,” a short song about doing nothing. No, that isn’t a slam on the song. That’s what the song is about. It’s about lying around and doing nothing because sometimes that’s just what you need to do. I always like these simple, fun songs that are easy to relate to and I imagine many listeners will enjoy this one. The Bottle Rockets keep it simple again with “Dog.” As you can tell from the title, it’s about dogs. Well particularly it’s about a man’s dog and how much he loves him and how you don’t have to love him too because it’s his dog. For dog lovers, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. Safe to say this is the most bizarre song on the album to me. But it works somehow. “Something Good” is about a man reflecting back on breaking up with his woman and how they had something good going until she ruined it. It’s a solid heartbreak song that I come to like more with each listen.

The song that stands out the most on South Broadway Athletic Club is “Building Chryslers.” It’s about an assembly line worker in a plant who spends his workdays building Chryslers and doesn’t care how they turn out, as he’s worried more about his bills. He also knows his fellow line workers don’t care either, so that’s why he drives a Toyota. Injecting that little bit of humor into a great song about the workingman is a nice touch. Throw in fantastic guitar play and you’ve got yourself one hell of a song.

The Bottle Rockets go acoustic on “Smile.” It’s definitely the happiest song on the album, as they sing about a man enjoying the smile of the woman he loves. The world is a tough place and her smile brings joy to him. The weakest song on the album is “XOYOU.” The instrumentation is top-notch, but it’s the second consecutive love song on the album and the lyrics get a little too corny for my taste. It’s not a bad song, but this is a song that could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. “Ship It On The Frisco” is played in by some earthy guitar licks that sets the tone of the song well. The instrumentation throughout this song and album is really well done and the band should be proud of the sound they create. The album ends with “Shape Of A Wheel,” a life song about going through all kinds of ups and downs. As Henneman sings, he may be many shapes at times, but he’s always a wheel no matter what shape he’s in and will keep rolling forward. Basically, it’s a song about continuing to persevere forward and not giving up. But it isn’t corny and feels relatable. It ties up this entire album nicely.

The Bottle Rockets deliver an album full of variety with South Broadway Athletic Club. The instrumentation is engaging, fun and diverse. It’s something that fans of country, rock and Americana can all enjoy. Most importantly the songs are kept simple in their theme and are easily connectable with listeners. Too many times artists will not put enough into a simple-themed song and will hence feel empty to the listener. But The Bottle Rockets make each of their songs feel full and you don’t have to listen to them several times over to understand them. South Broadway Athletic Club is definitely recommended listening.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Photo Courtesy: Bloodshot Records

Album Review – Jonathan Tyler’s ‘Holy Smokes’

Jonathan Tyler Holy Smokes

How the hell did I not know about Jonathan Tyler sooner? I love to convince myself I’m aware of the best country and Americana have to offer out there, but I most certainly don’t. That’s part of the excitement as a reviewer and fan of music: finding new awesome music and Jonathan Tyler is certainly a maker of awesome music. Originally Tyler was known as Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, but a lawsuit forced a name change. The band appeared to get their big break back in 2010 when they signed with Atlantic Records and their first album under the label, Pardon Me, experienced a lot of success. Unfortunately this partnership ended due to creative differences between the sides, as they wanted him to talk with a Jason Aldean producer and Tyler had no interest in compromising his vision. Now Tyler is with Thirty Tigers, home to Jason Isbell and several other talented artists in the country and Americana realms. It’s a good thing he got away from Atlantic too because we wouldn’t have gotten his new album Holy Smokes. And I like to think it’s named this because this is what you’ll say after listening to it.

The hard-hitting country rock anthem “Hallelujah” kicks off Holy Smokes. There’s plenty of electric guitar throughout this song to satiate any fans taste for it. You also find out right away that Tyler’s got a dynamic voice, allowing him to sing whatever he wants. A fast-paced and energetic song like this is the perfect song to start the album. The following song “Goin’ Down To The City” slows things down and is decidedly more country. The piano and acoustic guitar drive the sound of this song. There’s an underlying southern rock influence to the song too that gives it a laid back feeling. “Honey Pie” is a song about a man wanting a woman to accept him back into her life again. He wonders too why their love went dry in the first place, as he feels they had it all figured out some point. The lyrics and instrumentation are quite catchy and the desperation Tyler expresses in his voice as he sings really adds more of an edge to the song.

One of the highlights of the album to me is “Let It Out.” It’s a song about a man’s struggle with his internal demons and being unable to let go of a love he feels he deserves. The steel guitars throughout the song really help create a desperado state of mind in the listener, which fits perfectly with the theme of the song. Everything in this song simply works together well to make a great song. Jonathan Tyler is joined on “To Love Is To Fly” by fellow alt country singer Nikki Lane. Their voices really gel together well, as they sing this love ballad of two people falling in love. Both people realize they’re bad and great for each other, which they explain well through the song. This is another one of the high points of the album, as this song was tailor-made for a Tyler and Lane duet. Tyler shows off more of his Americana side on “California Sunshine.” The reason I say Americana is because the sound of this song is like a fusion of country, southern rock and blues. This is in a good way of course. I can’t get over how engaging and creative the instrumentation is throughout Holy Smokes. It’s one of the immediate draws of this album that will make you love it and this song is really the exemplification of it.

The most fun song of the album is hands-down “Riverbottom,” which I imagine is quite popular with live crowds. How could it not be? The high-energy guitars and pace make it easy to love. The song is about a man willing to do anything to get a woman to say she’ll be his. The chorus of the song really hooks you in and I guarantee after multiple listens it will be stuck in your head for a while. “Late Night Special” is a spacey and somewhat dark song about a woman calling up a man at late parts of the night. Or as she calls him, “Mr. Late Night Special.” I think you can infer the meaning here. The sound of this song is…I want to say weird, but it’s oddly mesmerizing at the same time. That’s about the best way I could describe it. Regardless it doesn’t matter if I can’t find the words to describe it, I just know it’s a damn good song.

Tyler collaborated with the well-known Texas singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard on “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long” and you can sense from the first listen this song is special. It’s a dark cowboy ballad about a desperado who has committed some serious crimes. He knows the consequences are going to result in his death and continues to reiterate that his time isn’t long. There’s not one thing missing from this song and is easily the best on the album and one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.

“Disappear” is a song about a woman being encouraged to leave her small town and pursue her dreams in the big city or wherever she chooses. This is the type of song you can appreciate more with each listen, as the lyrics are well written and do a great job telling a story to the listener. The acoustic guitars and steel guitars combined with timely organ play in the background make for great instrumentation. In other words this is just another quality country song on an album full of them. The longest song on Holy Smokes, “Everything Was Cool in 2002,” closes the album out. It’s a smoky tune that sounds like it came straight out of New Orleans with its earthy guitar licks and organ play. It almost has a psychedelic air about it. The instrumentation in this song is absolutely flawless and the production is magnificent. It’s a strong closer to an album with very few weaknesses.

Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes is an all-around terrific album. No beating around the bush in terms of a recommendation: Go buy this album as soon as possible. It’s full of cleverly written songs, excellent instrumentation and vocals that will impress any fan of alt country and Americana. Thank whatever deity you believe in that Tyler didn’t stick with Atlantic Records and produce neutered and watered down music. We wouldn’t have gotten this brilliant and refreshing album. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year and will surely be in the running for several of Country Perspective’s year-end awards. This is alt country at it’s best.

Grade: 10/10

 

Album Review – Forgotten By Friday’s ‘Whiskey & Song’

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 10.12.47 PM

Every now and then you’ll come across a band that’s hard to fit into one genre. The Connecticut based Forgotten By Friday call themselves Americana Rock/NU Country, but that’s just a label that doesn’t quite do the band justice. Their sound is a unique blend of rock ‘n roll and country music that you won’t find in many other places. Forgotten By Friday was originally founded by Dominick Mauro and Ryan Schneider, and currently consists of Mauro (Lead Vocals/Bass), Laurence Wenthen (Keyboards/Fiddle), Mike Forgette (Acoustic & Lead guitar/Vocals), Mike Giammattei (Drums), Maria Soaft (Vocals), and Joe Ayala (Guitar). The band has grown and made a name for themselves in the Northeastern area over the past 5 years, and were recently voted “Best Country/Americana in the Connecticut Music Awards.” Earlier this year, the band released their second album, Whiskey & Song.

The album starts off with the title track that serves as more of a prelude than an actual first song. Coming in at 90 seconds, the track features a mostly a-cappella delivery of Mauro, Soaft, and Forgette singing about how they grew up on “work, whiskey, and song.” It’s all tied together with the line “I had to find my way” which could describe the theme of many of the following songs: musicians finding a way to make their dream come true. “Crazy as I Am” follows as a love song. It’s an up-tempo rock anthem about how unique and out of the norm they both are, but since the other is “just as crazy as I am” then the partnership will maintain. The song features some comparisons to famous pop culture partnerships like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, the gang from Scooby Doo, and Star Wars.

“Just a Girl” has Maria Soaft taking the lead vocals. This upbeat song carries more of a country influence in the production. Soaft sings of a woman trying to break free from cultural expectations so she can simply be who she wants to be. “They tell me how dress, how to wear my hair, cross my legs and not to swear but I won’t be your American Dream” she sings in the third verse. “Fever” is a fast-paced rocker about a boy being captivated by a woman. Her love is simply compared to a fever and there’s not much more to the song than that. The fiddle work from Wenthen is excellent on this track, though.

Forgotten By Friday flesh out the underlying theme on “I’m Home.” This song is told from the perspective of a traveler and musician who returns home after a stint on the road. From the joy of pets at home to the simple pleasures of taking in the surrounding beauty, the song describes what the singer enjoys best about his home. There’s a bit more sentiment in this song than many other country “small town anthems.” A nice banjo creeps into the musical mix on this track. Continuing with this theme, “Six More Days” finds the musician still on the road, a week out from returning home. This song takes the approach of describing the musician’s weariness and eagerness to return home because he misses his family, rather than the material things at home. It’s a slower song that builds as it progresses with some strong vocal harmonies in the chorus.

“Everyday” is a break-up song where both Maria Soaft and Dominick Mauro sing each side of the story. Each person is down and upset, tired of being alone and wondering what the other is up to. It’s an acoustic driven song with a great fiddle complimenting the guitars. While both Soaft and Mauro sing their parts well, I think the band missed an opportunity to showcase some more vocal harmonies between the two to flesh out the emotions buried in the song. It’s just a song that sounds incomplete to me. Maria takes the lead again on “Steel Horses.” The song deals with a woman on the road, seemingly running free to cope with a broken heart. Of all the songs on the album, I think this song has the best mix of instrumentation with the guitars blending nicely with the piano. The song showcases the band’s musical talents well and is the best representation of Forgotten By Friday’s Americana Rock sound.

“Come on Home With Me” is a piano driven song about a man wanting to pick up a woman in the bar. The only difference between this song and the hundreds of mainstream country songs of the same topic is how Forgotten By Friday approaches the pickup with much more grace and respect. “It’s Worth Fighting For” is a song of a man encouraging his woman who their love is worth fighting for; it’s a desire to keep their relationship strong. It’s a much more country-influenced song than most of the album and features an excellent fiddle solo. The album ends with the cheating song “Why Are You Still Kissing Me.” Here the female character is with a man who’s basically a good-looking model who’s about as deep as rain puddle. She keeps him around because he looks good on her arm, but she wants to be with other men.

Overall, Whiskey & Song is a good offering from Forgotten By Friday. There are a few songs where the rougher, self-produced music is more evident and sort of takes away from the song as a whole. However, in songs like “Steel Horses” and “It’s Worth Fighting For” the band sounds like they hit their stride musically as the mixing and production sound great behind the vocal track. Forgotten By Friday has a truly unique sound that will surely set them apart. While the album is a bit choppy, there’s quite a bit of potential simmering in the band. Both Mauro and Soaft are strong vocalists and command the attention they deserve on their songs, and the band behind them sound sharp. Whiskey & Song has a few good offerings for those looking for some underground Americana Rock music.

Grade: 6/10