Saturday, March 31, 2007

CD REVIEW: Those Poor Bastards' "Hellfire Hymns"

Label: Tribulation Recording Co.

Lord have mercy, Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister have delivered to us another heaping helping of gloom and doom. The same duo that brought us song “Pills I Took” (a hit for Hank Williams III) and the fantastic gothic country debut album Songs of Desperation have now unleashed Hellfire Hymns on to this pitiful world. This time, Those Poor Bastards are darker than ever, taking listeners right down to the Land of Lucifer and into his demonic clutches.

While fans will be familiar with Hymns’ subject matter, this album is not the Country Bullshit EP nor is it Songs of Desperation. On this record, for the most part, Those Poor Bastards have taken the country out of their so-called “gothic country” sound that dominated their first two releases. The difference in sound isn’t as dramatic as, say, Dylan going electric, but listeners will no doubt be able to notice. No one sound dominates Hellfire Hymns. Sometimes we get gothic country (the creepy hoedown “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”), sometimes gothic rock and roll (the electric “Farewell Happy Fields”), sometimes gothic folk (the outstanding cover of the classic “The Hellbound Train”). However, most of the time, we get a sound that’s somewhere in between these three.

This, however, is NOT a bad thing at all. Despite the different styles, Hellfire Hymns is Those Poor Bastards’ most consistent effort by far. Almost a concept album of sorts, each song deals with the condemned and damnation, and the musicianship is excellent. Lonesome Wyatt’s vocals and The Minister’s guitar and banjo have never sounded better. Lending his mandolin talents also is Jayke Orvis from The .357 String Band on the leadoff track, “The Dust Storm.”

This outstanding musicianship leads to a number of outstanding songs. The 16-track album is loaded with Grade-A misery. First is the previously mentioned mandolin-tinged “The Dust Storm,” which is probably the greatest song that has ever emerged from Lonesome Wyatt’s pitiful pen. It’s certainly the catchiest, easily taking the place of “Pills I Took” in that regard. Plus, it’s much stronger lyrically. “John Henry Gonna” finds Those Poor Bastards using John Henry as a metaphor for God, and the idea that no one knows when his hammer is going to fall. Great song, as the interestingly bouncy (a la “My Last Dollar) “God Damned Me,” which describes a man truly down on his luck. Following these two tracks is the hard-rocking “Behold Black Sheep,” another album highlight, which is a well-deserved middle finger to hypocritical, phony Christians. This same desperate, loud cry can be found on “Ruin My Life,” a nice little song of dissatisfaction… with a sinful edge. Then comes “Stay Away From the Forest Boy,” another hoedown-esque number which features Jesus calling to a soul gone astray, warning him to stay away from Satan and his contract. Later, we are given “Family Graveyard,” a good old-fashioned tale of resurrection where a fellow decided he wants to raise his loved ones from the dead “just like ‘ol Lazarus.” Truly frightening, lonely, and lovely! Yet, the last two tracks are perhaps Hymns’ most memorable. On album where Those Poor Bastards seem to abandon the country in their sound, they deliver their finest country song to date called “Lost on the Way.” Just as “Black Dog Yodel” from the Country Bullshit EP could have been written by a zombified Jimmie Rodgers, “Lost on the Way” could have been written by a zombified Hank Williams. It’s a terrible tale of impending doom after a highway accident. Finally, as if the album couldn’t be more miserable, Wyatt and the Minister deliver an appropriate, apocalyptic ending with “Everything is Gone.” The song, which describes the world after Armageddon, is a perfect finale to this wonderful package of Hellfire Hymns.

Always fantastic and forever original, Those Poor Bastards have delivered their finest album. Their sound continues to expand in a positive direction, and Wyatt’s growth as a songwriter is evident. As his lyrics continue to improve with each release, it does not spell well for the damned sinners in our midst. One cannot help but eagerly anticipate the next record as he or she listens to these pitiful ditties. In the meantime though, repent now, because like God and John Henry, Those Poor Bastards deliver damnation with Hellfire Hymns. And Hell has never sounded more terrifying!