I compared Zack Walther and the Awe Hells‘ 15:51 EP to the folk-and-gospel-infused southern rock of Needtobreathe, and those comparisons hold true in their new Seduce the Backbeat EP. But they’ve cranked the dial on both ends of their sound, making the rock more rockin’ and the folk/gospel folkier and gospel-ier.
“You’re Going to Get It” is a straight-up Black Keys stomper (brittle fuzz guitar tone and all), while “Ode to Bailey” is 3:20 of a Walther-led a capella gospel choir. Both are vastly entertaining slices of their respective genres. “Crazy Town” is a southern rocker, while “Hole in the Desert” is an ominous, organ-led country tune that crescendoes up to something way louder than that. Walther’s commanding voice is the constant through all four tunes; his expert control over tone and range make him simply fun to listen to. If you’re into Needtobreathe, The Black Keys, or the heavier side of Zac Brown Band, you’ll love Seduce the Backbeat.
The Severely Departed is a post-rock duo that does a very good job of not sounding like a duo. This isn’t to say that they pack their tunes with instruments to hide the fact that it’s two guys; it’s that the elements they incorporate sound full and natural. The songs on Two build and fall in exciting and interesting ways, playing off tensions between the performers. Many duos can become the back line supporting the front line, but The Severely Departed encourages the drums to play an equal role in the tunes. Whether this is by setting a near-constant cymbal backdrop for “Moving On” or by supplying solid contrast to the guitar antics in “A Parting Glance,” Ben Crowley’s drum parts shine. In parts of “Relapse,” Crowley’s complex parts are the whole action, as Chris Grimm repeats a distant guitar riff and lets Crowley roll. It reminds me of the acrobatic, heavily rhythmic drumming of Josh Baruth on The Appleseed Cast’s Mare Vitalis.
Grimm has his own highlights, as the guitar and keys bounce back and forth between beautiful clean melodies (a la Moonlit Sailor) and heavier riffs. The tensions between these two styles are played up in “Relapse,” making it the most intriguing tune of the bunch. But each of the five tracks here have their own merits: the layered piano and guitars of “Beneath the Years” allow for one of the more complex arrangements of the bunch, while “Into the Open” displays great use of tension. Two is an impressive release for the Severely Departed, and I hope it gets them a lot more recognition in the post-rock world.
Chicago’s Shiloh refers to itself as scum pop. It’s nowhere near as scuzzy as SanFran garage rock, but it does mash up indie-rock, indie-pop, and alt-country in a lyrically and musically irreverent way. There’s plenty of glee to be had throughout the 10-song Mrs.: the excellent a capella chorale of “Perfecting the Art” gets pummeled by one of the loudest rock sections on the album; opener “Midwestern Sigh” recalls Pavement and the like in their giddy disregard for vocal and songwriting conventions; “Winking Buick” is some sort of alt-country/indie/surf-rock instrumental jam sesh. The core of almost every tune is recognizably alt-country, but the tunes sprawl out over a wide spectrum from there. For instance, closer “Perfecting the Art” crams a mellow pop song, a saloon-style breakdown, and the aforementioned a capella/rock breakdown into 3:54 (all while still retaining an irresistible melody). If you’re into varied, genre-bending songwriting, Shiloh is a good bet to pique your interest.
Zack Walther and the Awe Hells play a mash-up of rock, folk, and Southern rock that calls up comparisons to Needtobreathe pretty quickly. Walther has a resonant, powerful voice that plays on top of twangy banjo (“Heartstrings”), foot-stomping swamp rock that incorporates a manic gospel tint (“Mustang Wine”), and mid-tempo rock (“Stand Up”) with equal ease. His baritone provides a lot of the direction, but the band provides swagger to match. The bass work is especially notable, as the low-end contributes a great deal to the feel of tunes like “Stand Up” and “Here With You.” If you wish that Zac Brown Band was a bit more muscly, or that Needtobreathe get a little bit too Muse-y at times, then Zack Walther and the Awe Hells’ 15:51 EP will be in your corner.
Dan Hubbard‘s fingerpicked folk/country resonates with me melodically and lyrically. The sound of Livin’ in the Heartland is earthy, comfortable, and intimate without acquiring the hushed tone that dominates much of the personal music I cover here. The lyrics are a bit more brash than I’m used to as well, celebrating domestic life in a tone that’s much more Zac Brown Band than Bon Iver.
The vocals and guitar are so perfectly meshed on tunes like “The List” and “I Will Not Forget This Place” that it called up thoughts of Justin Townes Earle and Johnny Flynn. Those songwriters have a much more modern-folk flair to their sound, but their clarity and tightness of songwriting is echoed in Hubbard’s tunes. Hubbard’s tunes are beautiful, powerful and often seemingly effortless: the sparse “I Will Not Forget This Place” moves with a sprightly ease while still carrying dramatic heft. It’s a rare songwriter that can pull off that trick. If you’re a fan of strong, emotional songwriting that doesn’t call attention to itself, you should check out Hubbard’s Living in the Heartland.
Those who have been reading IC for a while have seen me come around to country music. I started this blog on a steady diet of punk rock, and over the past seven years I’ve mellowed out the bulk of my listening. But it’s only in the past year that I’ve been chill enough to embrace even small pockets of hot country. The Zac Brown Band was my first foray into “Yeah, I like country,” and there have been a few others since the original conversion in Summer ’09.
Oliver Buck and the New Madrids play hot country. It’s not as slick as Montgomery Gentry or the Zac Brown Band, but it’s definitely on the high side of Josh Turner in pop sheen. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that, no matter what they tell you. If it’s crappy hot country, then it’s just as bad as if it were crappy indie rock. And if it’s good hot country, it can be just as enjoyable as a good indie-rock band.
Mr. Buck and his Spaniards play it right. They put feeling into the tunes without getting sappy, and rock without getting kitschy. A lot of this is owed to Buck’s solid voice, which smooths over any rough edges that the recording may have left. His voice is a nice, low tenor that resonates. He sounds comfortable in these songs, and as a result, I felt good about the tunes as well. I didn’t sense any fakery or winking going on; these are the songs that came out when Oliver Buck sat down to play. “Road to Nowhere” is especially solid in its mournful tone, and . The low-slung “Gina from Tulsa” made me smile, because I’m from Tulsa.
Oliver Buck and the New Madrids’ Prairie Girl is an EP worth getting for fans of Hot Country. It’s not an EP that will make converts to country, but it certainly is enjoyable for fans of the genre.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.