The Aussie group Wagons, lead by Henry Wagons, comes at us with roots in the deepest of Americana, despite the distance of their hometowns. In just about every song those influences are prevalent: a voice like Johnny Cash, a swing like Elvis Presley, and an insightful honesty like Hank Williams. Wagons’ accent from down under comes out occasionally, but then only when you’re listening for it. At other times, though there is always a basis in rock and country, there is a hint of cabaret and soul that sneaks into the melodies. It is absolutely necessary to note how authentically American the band comes off, even though they hail from the literal opposite side of the globe.
If you want to get to know this band, press “next” before you hit “play” on their latest release, Rumble, Shake and Tumble. Track one is an obvious radio song, and as soon as the second song begins, you’ll get the unfortunate news that Wagons are willing to completely change their sound to make a single radio hit. Thankfully, the rest of the album really is magnificent. Past that first track, you’ll find a band rooted in gritty country, rock ‘n’ roll, and infectious foot stomping.
From just after that opening tune (“Downlow”) all the way through the disc-ending “Mary Lou”, Rumble, Shake and Tumble delivers exactly what the album title says it will. With his deep bass, low grumble, and drunk-ish slur, Henry Wagons is able to convey surprising tenderness even when singing over raucous clanging and pounding. “I Blew It”, the second track on the album and first one that gives you a true feel for the band, is a perfect example. While the band of six kicks down a proverbial steel door with their pounding, Henry laments a verse complete with qualities that run throughout the entire record: rugged masculinity, humour, humility and regret: “I dodged a few bullets in my time / Narrowly escaped with a fully intact hide / One thing I completely screwed / Yeah, I blew it when it came to you.”
That same way with words prevails throughout the record. Henry delivers his lyrics with a brutally honest, at times depressing, yet somehow witty tone. His apparent propensity for looking on the bright side prevails, even if his words on paper are less than hopeful. The mid-way verse of “Moon Into the Sun” begs, “Everybody tells me things will heal with time / But I have seen these hands spin a million miles / Please, please lift me from this downright funk / Douse my flames with a fire truck.” Later, somehow almost happily, he proclaims, “Oh how I love you, how I love you true / My life has been a fuckin’ mess without you.”
However, it’s not all sun-poking-through-clouds. In fact, if you don’t focus on the lyrics, you’d probably get the impression that Wagons are a rather fun-loving band – what shows through most is their rascality and probable back bar gruffness. At other times, there is a straight humour, an appreciation for life that makes you forget some of the downtrodden sentiments of songs. A chant of “It’s sizzlin’, cracklin’, smokin’ and fizzlin’” to describe his burning love is a refrain throughout “Love Is Burning”. In “Willie Nelson” – an ode to a favourite – Henry demands he’d like to know something special about Willie, to which his bandmate (credited as Matty Softmoods) responds quite seriously with a chant: “He likes some salt and pepper with his evening meal.”
The standout ballad on the album, “My Daydreams”, is an acoustic ode to a long distance lover, a home missed, and a rattling mind. Again, Henry’s brutal honesty is like a punch to the stomach. The song gains a Neil Young-ish rust with each progressive verse, and does not leave much room for the funny stuff.
As Henry himself puts it, “I wanted the album to reflect the washing machine turbine we have been put through. This musicians’ spin cycle has been an amazing and dizzy time. I wanted to capture it on record, complete with highs and lows.” And it worked. Throughout the record, you get the impression that it could have been recorded live. You can hear every personality of the six (and sometimes more) member band as if you’re watching them together on stage. There is an energy you can feel and a connection that is palpable. Henry may be the bandleader and driving creative force, but without the band to stand alongside him, the sound would not come together nearly as well. And thanks to that combined energy, you can understand the spin cycle he wants to convey
The album-closing “Mary Lou” is a much darker, more simplistic, angrily honest tune. Though the bulk of the song is played with an acoustic guitar plucking single notes amidst an escalating backdrop of ambient sound, it ends with a simple and sombre verse put to serve as an afterthought, recorded of different quality and written as a near entirely different tune. An interesting way to end an album in completely opposite fashion than it carried for its lifespan, but what other way to end a roller coaster ride than by turning us on our heads all over again.
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