Thursday, July 12, 2007

CD REVIEW: The Hackensaw Boys' "Look Out"

Label: Nettwerk Records
Ahh the sweet sounds of bluegrass. Thanks to a little movie called O Brother Where Art Thou, the genre has garnered more attention over the past few years… even though it never really went away. It’s a good thing too because with so many great bands emerging, we may be in the middle of the most exciting era of bluegrass in several decades. However, even though they use the same instrument arrangements that Bill Monroe made famous in the 1930s, some of these bands add an extra spark to the genre. They approach bluegrass with punk rock-like energy to create a vibe that is popular among fans of all ages and styles of music.

One of these bands is The Hackensaw Boys. Even though they have been playing together for almost ten years, they did not release an album on a label until 2005. When I heard that record, titled Love What You Do, I wondered why the underground country press was not mentioning them in the same breath as the more popular Old Crow Medicine Show. I believed then, and still do, that The Hackensaw Boys’ label debut rivaled OCMS’ first label effort. What I did not realize is that many of the Boys’ longtime fans disagreed. They said that even though they were still an outstanding live act, the Boys had lost their killer edge on the album… that it was far too mellow and polished. When I sat down to listen to their new 2007 release, I did so with a sense of curiosity, wondering what sound I was going to experience. Well, to those who think that The Hackensaw Boys’ lost their edge, Look Out! The appropriately titled album finds the Boys returning to their roots, full steam ahead.

The Hackensaw Boys’ line-up has some changed over the years, but it doesn’t take long for Look Out listeners to come to the conclusion that these guys are good! Bluegrass is a genre that demands solid musicianship for success, and each member of the band is a tremendous musician. This is especially true of Jimmy Stelling, who plays incredibly blistering banjo. His talent doesn’t stop there, as both he and Ferd Moyse absolutely saw the fiddle in half. Watching them play live must be amazing, and their work on the record is phenomenal. When the musical talents of bandmates Jesse Fiske, Robert Bullington, Ward Harrison, Justin Neuhardt, and part-timer Tom Peloso (Modest Mouse) are added to the mix, listeners are treated to a sonic blast of bluegrass goodness.

Several of The Hackensaw Boys add their vocal chops to Look Out, but they also share the songwriting responsibilities as well. It makes sense, then, that the album has quite a wide variety in sound. Some songs are banjo-fueled hellraisers (“Look Out Dog, Slow Down Train” and “Sweet Petunia”), which will undoubtedly please longtime fans. However, some tracks find the Boys leaving the “punk” at home and sound like bluegrass numbers that could have been recorded back in the genre’s heyday (the hoedown “Blue Eyed Girl” and the music-sets-you-free tale of “Radio”). Some resemble the sounds of other bands who dabble in bluegrass, such as the Avett Brothers-esque “Baltimore” and “Sally Ann,” which could easily be an Old Crow Medicine Show song. Still, other songs feature the Boys reaching into other musical genres to create some real gems. Examples of this include a real highlight of the album, the outstanding jazzed-up “Too Much Time,” and the album’s closer, “Just One Chance,” which mixes speedy bluegrass and excellent blues harmonica.

The stories told in the songs vary as well. Some are stories of relationships, which could easily take place today. However, for folks who long for stories that take place during the glory years of bluegrass, Look Out listeners will be pleased to find three such numbers. These include a tremendous cover of the traditional “Gospel Plow,” a tribute to a legendary United States president (“F.D.R.”), and the Tom Peloso-penned “Hobo.” “Hobo” is one of the best hobo songs to come out in years and would make both Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmy Martin proud. It makes one wish that Peloso would quit Modest Mouse and rejoin The Hackensaw Boys as a fulltime member. It’s an album highlight, as is “Oh Girl,” an absolute dark dandy of a vengeance song… a true modern bluegrass classic!

I’ve always hated the term “old-timey.” It’s a strong label that categorizes a style as a relic of the past… one that can’t be truly appreciated in the modern age. While The Hackensaw Boys may utilize an instrument arrangement of the 1930s, they refuse to let the bluegrass genre become such a relic. Look Out is the Boys at their best, a perfect medium between their raw early years and the more polished sound of their previous release. Thanks to such solid modern bluegrass albums like this, maybe soon we can stop referring to the style as “old-timey”… and start calling it simply “good-timey.”

1 comment:

porter said...

You're review of the album is right on. The Hacks are amazing and even better live. You should totally check them out!