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The Band of Heathens

Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son

(BOH Records; US: 29 Mar 2011; UK: Available as import)

The Band Of Heathens is a southern, roots rock group that proudly and unapologeticly wears its influences on its sleeve. Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son, the Austin, Texas, band’s third studio CD, recalls the classic ‘70s Americana of the Band, the golden California folk harmony of the Eagles and the heavy but soulful boogie of the Black Crowes, all with a bottomless dose of New Orleans swagger.


“Medicine Man” is a hard rocking, dirty, bluesy opener, awash in a thick psychedelic haze of sludgy guitars and vocal harmonies, which makes no attempt to hide its narrative: “Might lose your house, might lose your home/But I’ll give you back more than you have known.Put you in the black, gonna shake your bones.Your healer, your dealer, your only one/I’m your medicine man/I’m your medicine man”.


Acoustic guitars, rollicking, barroom piano, a bluesy harmonica vamp, hand claps and tambourines bring a Cajun stomp feel to the fools rush in ballad, “Should Have Known”. There’s comfort found in a black book of memories on “Polaroid”, which has a folksy, southern California, sunshiny pop aura. A bellowing, multi-voiced choir, swirling Hammond organ and brass band ascents mark “The Other Broadway” as a rich, gospel hymn and jazz funeral to a beautiful soul taken much too early. It starts off mellow and slow, but builds and climaxes as a praise worthy and powerful ode. “Gravity” again finds the band mining the California folk of the Eagles with three part vocal harmonies and intertwined acoustic and electric guitars. 


That New Orleans styled swagger is back on the last three songs, however, tying the whole album together. “Free Again” is a contemptuous, yet sarcastic paean written in 2010 in the wake of Katrina. In a hymnal march with steady percussion, the songwriter looks down at the Gulf Coast people cynically, stating that individuals just got careless and lazy, living off the fat of the land for so long and for trying to turn a cheek like it was someone else’s problem to fix. The band then goes on with “Hurricane”, recorded originally by Levon Helm in 1980 while he was recording songs for the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” soundtrack, and released on his American Son album. The Band Of Heathens pay reverence to Helm and New Orleans with the same slow, bluesy cadence along with a drawl and a weeping, slide guitar. It’s an eerie and anticipatory tale that tells of a grizzled gulf coast salt—sung in three part harmony here—who’s lived his lifetime on the coast and seen storms come and go every year, yet still New Orleans remains: “I was born in the rain on the Pontchartrain/Underneath the Louisiana Moon/I don’t mind the strain of a hurricane/They come around every June/High black water, a devil’s daughter/She’s hard, she’s cold, and she’s mean/But nobody taught her it takes a lot of water/To wash away New Orleans”.


Yet the album’s closer, a bone chilling, goose bump inducing love letter to the people—their various, respected religions, including black magic—of New Orleans, paints a picture of the utmost respect. It’s a lovely, acoustic guitar and piano based ode that you’ll find yourself aching to hear sung and played late at night in a tiny barroom with all amplification turned off, or even sitting silently around a campfire in hushed awe.


With Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son, The Band of Heathens pay tribute one of America’s finest cities and its rich musical heritage, as well as to the classic rock of yore.

Rating:

Bill is a New England based freelance critic whose writing has been published in Paste Magazine, Relix Magazine, Performing Songwriter Magazine, The Hartford Advocate and Hartford Courant, Jambase.com, Yahoo Music, among others.


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The Band Of Heathens - Medicine Man
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