Thursday, November 17, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 939: The Band of Heathens

I’ve had a lot going on after work lately and haven’t found the time to write this review until now. As a result, I got to listen to it a lot while I walked home for three days. Fortunately it’s a new album, and we needed the time to get acquainted.

Disc 939 is….One Foot in the Ether
Artist: The Band of Heathens

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? When tree line meets eye line? It’s a red letter day? It kind of works but it also kind of feels like a photography class project gone wrong.

How I Came To Know It: Last October Sheila and I went to Nashville to see the Miami Dolphins and take in the sights. We were trying to find a band to go see while we were there but we didn’t know any of the acts that were playing. I started listening to any band that was in town on Youtube to see if I’d like them. Two artists stuck out: Lera Lynn and Band of Heathens.

We ended up going to see Lera Lynn because we liked her slightly more and because the Band of Heathens had this ‘mystery’ show where they didn’t tell you the location until a few hours before the show. When I got home I bought a Band of Heathens album.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Band of Heathens album. I’m tempted by 2013’s “Sunday Morning Record” but for now I’ve just got the one, so I can’t really stack it up.

Ratings: 3 stars

It’s good when an album has artistic range, but if you take it too far you lose focus. “One Foot In the Ether” walks that line like a drunk sailor; mostly well balanced with an occasional lurch that threatens to take them off the edge of the pier.

Fortunately this is music, and no one is going to drown from an occasional misstep or a bit of excess, sometimes it just makes it better.

But that doesn’t change that the album has so many competing styles it is initially hard to get into. Three of the five band members (Ed Jordi, Cordy Quist and Colin Brooks) are songwriters and singers, and each has their own style doing both. These range from an alt-country gravel to a Rolling Stones’ tinged rock and roll and then to a bluesy Otis Redding inspired soul.

My early favourite is the outlaw country guy, but unfortunately I don’t know who is who since the CD has no liner notes, and the internet is equally unhelpful when it comes to bands of this relative level of fame. Let’s call him Guy #1.

Whatever his name, the album starts with a song by him, “LA County Blues,” which is a glorious track full of a restless energy about slackabouts drinking their way through Las Vegas and (presumably) heading home with a fuzzy head and empty pockets.

This tone of grit and uncertainty is the common thread through all three styles on the record but alone it isn’t enough to hold the record together. The recurring country numbers by Guy #1 are though, and on “What’s This World” the band delivers another indictment of modern society:

“We got mouths to feed and boots to fill
Pills for sleep and dreams of dollar bills
And we clean our guns while we turn our cheeks
We’re like angels and demons and dogs in heat.”

The melody of both this song and “LA County Blues” aren’t incredibly innovative but they make all the right turns to serve the lyrics and ably underscore the themes they explore.

The bluesier numbers (Guy #2? I’m not sure…) are generally good as well particularly “Shine a Light” which straddles a line between blues and gospel and gave me visions of hobos down by the railroad tracks dancing around a burning barrel. I have no idea why that crossed my mind, because there are no hobos involved in the song, but that’s what I saw. It was a pretty sweet dance number too, with the lead hobo resplendent in torn trousers, red mack jacket and toque. But I digress…

Golden Calf” is also a grimy bit of blues rock, and someone calling for “eight more seconds on the golden calf” is a great image, biblically ominous and thoughtlessly self-indulgent all at the same time. My only regret here is the squawk box effect on the vocals on the track. I think it is intended to evoke a 30s feel, but it sounds fake. Worse, there is a live version of the song on Youtube without any such artifice which is infinitely better. Here it is. Every time I hear the studio version I find myself wishing I could hear the live version instead.

Also, while the band is incredibly tight there are times where they sound like a bar cover band. This is ironic, considering that apart from a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio” these are all original tracks. Also, they wear their musical influences a bit too prominently on their sleeves. On “You’re Gonna Miss Me” the band sings “Otis Redding sang the blues the sometimes” and on “Talking Out Loud” the vocalist (let’s call him Guy #3) sounds like he is doing an Otis Redding impersonation. The proximity of the reference to the homage is a bit jarring.

Fortunately, the album’s brilliance overcomes these minor annoyances with relative ease. There are even a couple of optimistic tunes near the end with “Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled” and “Hey Rider.” While I generally prefer this album when it is stripped down, I liked the fuzzy production on “Hey Rider” which creates a dreamy quality that suggests anything is possible, even world peace. Sounds flaky but you have to be there.

I gave this album four listens over the last three days and I went from not being sure about whether I liked it to knowing that I did. The Band of Heathens don’t make it easy with all their shifting styles, but it is worth the effort in the end.

Best tracks: LA County Blues, Shine a Light, What’s This World, Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled, Hey Rider

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