Zach Boddicker, lyricist and songwriter of country-rock band 4H Royalty, won my heart in 2012 when “Virtues, Spices & Liquors” had a narrator announce that people were “aardvarking cocaine off the back of one of my CDs.” The clever and poignant chorus has even more memorable turns of phrase. Naturally, I looked immediately to lyrics when its follow-up Liars and Outliers arrived. I was not disappointed.
2012’s Where UFOs Go to Die balanced cleverness and humor by setting them in individual songs; Liars and Outliers is more integrated in its lyrical approach. Tunes like “Frank,” “Cherry Street,” and “Moving to the Country” insert clever turns of phrase into tunes that are ultimately about heavier topics like an old friend gone crazy, the complicated emotions surrounding your hometown, and the downsides of rural living. There are still some 100% humorous songs, like “Your Team” and “Road Beer,” but on the whole the approach is more nuanced than in their previous effort. In short, Boddicker takes great and makes it better here.
The music is strong as well. The band has refined its crisp country-rock approach, resulting in distinctly recognizable tunes. “Your Team” and “Road Beer” are both anchored by great melodies in the chorus, while the instrumental “Gas Cap Rag” translates that vocal melodicism into excellent guitarwork. The band has a strong, unified sound, with each member contributing equally to the arrangement. This results in songs that feel like full songs, as opposed to vehicles for a particular element.
The best example of this is “The Shape of Karaoke to Come,” which compares the slacking life to war (and, yes, karaoke) and backs up those ruminations with a bass/drums/guitar arrangement where each part complements the others. It’s not as deeply moving as “Virtues, Spices & Liquors” (and it’s not trying to be), but it’s certainly as polished lyrically and musically. The bassist and drummer also shine in the sinuous, winding “Moving to the Country.”
If you’re a sucker for a lyric, then you should be all over 4H Royalty. But you should also apply within if you like tight, melodic country-rock. It’s rare that you get stellar lyrics and excellent musical achievement in one album, but that’s exactly what you get in the nine songs of Liars and Outliers.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
The unusual title of Where UFOs Go To Die did not prepare me for 4H Royalty‘s music. I had reasonably expected some country music from the band name, but the album title threw me for a loop. Was it going to be goofy? Was it all going to be tongue-in-cheek like opener “Accordion Bus”? This band contains the guitarist of post-rock duo Lafayette (one of my favorite IC bands ever), so how does that work out?
But then “Statutes of Limitation” hits, and all the fears clear up quickly. 4H Royalty is a gritty, workingman’s rock’n’roll/country band, creating timeless, powerful tunes that would appeal to fans of The Hold Steady as well as Ryan Adams. 9Bullets once described Glossary as a “no-frills, unabashed rock n’ roll records with just enough elements of classic pop and country to keep me honest.” If you flip the rock’n’roll and country references in that sentence, it’s a perfect description of 4H Royalty. Those guitars don’t twang that often, but the voices kinda do, and all these songs are about ending up back in your rural hometown unexpectedly (that hometown being the titular location).
These aren’t woe-is-me ballads, though: the lyrics here are top-shelf storytelling. I don’t often mention lyrics in an album, because 75% of the time they’re inessential (la’s would suffice) and 15% of the time they’re slightly above average. But that other ten percent is money, and bands with meaningful lyrics are usually tagged as very important music. So be it for 4H Royalty. Here’s a clip conflating women and their namesakes that knocked me out: “Mercy, Sherry, Sage, and Rosemary/Jasmine, Brandy, and Hope/return me to sender when I start to remember/all the virtues, spices and liquors of home.” Or this one: “Brilliant social climbers know to take elevators, and I am neither for taking the stairs.” Both of those come from highlight track “Virtues, Spices and Liquors,” which is going on all my summer mixtapes in that spot where you’re trying to get the mood from “driving songs” to “chill out tunes.” It fits right in there.
It’s hard to explain the scruffy, gritty music that 4H Royalty makes. “Gritty” and “scruffy” in this case don’t mean junky garage rock, but still: their tunes have some dirt and use on them. It’s the difference between a gleaming new truck (a large number of country bands) and one that’s been used, loved and wouldn’t be traded for the world (4H Royalty). “The Black Hornet Rides Again” is a rock instrumental that sounds like the Southern Rock equivalent of a surf jam like “Wipeout!” “Fall Off the Face of the Earth with Me” is a weary love song that starts off with the phrase, “It’s times like this you really the effects the brain drain has had on this town…” “Soon Enough” is a jaded, mid-tempo kiss-off tune; depending on your point of view, “Itchy Blood” is an guardedly optimistic or kinda desperate “I still love you” note to a woman who may or may not still remember the narrator.
And it’s that ambiguity that makes Where UFOs Go to Die such a compelling listen. The band nails everything they go for (with the exception of the aforementioned confusing opener), leaving tons of space for the vocals and lyrics to take over and do their thing. The result is an album that showcases both a brilliant lyricist and veteran musicians (Lafayette’s Andrew Porter plays bass and organ, while Zach Boddicker was in the late great Drag the River). These songs are so tight that they’re past the “we got this” phase and into “how do we confidently show musically that we don’t got this in our lives?” And they do that here; it’s one thing to tell passion, but it’s another thing to tell overly optimistic, confused, underconfident, overcompensating, real passion. If that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you much. This is easily a contender for album of the year.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.