Virginia’s Wrinkle Neck Mules have been around for a while, releasing albums since the year 2000 to a growing fanbase. Exploring the fertile crossroads between rock and country, the outfit is essentially a rock band with a country-bluegrass heart, or perhaps vice versa. Apprentice to Ghosts is their fifth album, and although a touch inconsistent, it still has many pleasures to offer.
Roughly speaking, the record divides itself into three parts, opening strongly with a trio of solid tunes before sagging into a somwhat lethargic midsection, then closing strongly once again.
Album opener “When the Wheels Touch Down” is an unexpectedly slow and intrspective way to kick off the proceedings, building as it does from a simple strummed guitar and vocal before ramping up into something altogether more impassioned and bombastic. The vocals are terrific, filled with quavering angst; the record credits all five musicians with vocal duties, so it’s tough to know who sings what and when. In amy case, the song builds a terrific platform for the next two tunes, which are the strongest on the record.
The first of those two, “Stone Above Your Head”, is a straight-ahead rocker with is more boot-stompingly raucous than anything else on the record. That’s too bad, because it’s great fun, and features a gritty, grungy guitar tone that is a perfect accompaniment to the warbling, vaguely pissed-off vocals. Follow-up tune “On Wounded Knee” is more chug-a-lug than full-tilt, but is every bit as hook-laden and fiesty. With these first songs in the three-to-four-minute range, Wrinkle Neck Mules establish themselves as inspired purveyors of fully-formed rocking country goodness.
It’s a shame, then, that this promise is left unfulfilled by the next stretch of songs, that range from the oddly forgettable title track to the almost-schmaltzy “Leaving Chattanooga”, and encompassing a trio of songs that share a certain lassitude. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with “Patience in the Shadows” or “Parting of the Clouds,” they’re just lackluster compared to what has come before.
Not until “Liberty Bell” does the record return to its previous high standards. “Liberty Bell” is no rocker — in fact it’s one of the slowest tunes here — but its intensity comes, again, from the soulful vocal and powerful, see-saw chord progression. Happily, this is a harbinger of the songs to come, with “Banks of the James” injecting one more dose of pedal steel swing before the peppy, we’re-not-taking-this-too-seriously stomp of “Central Daylight Time” flashes with rare humor.
Apprentice to Ghosts ends on a note that swings between somber and celebratory. “Dry Your Eyes” features some terrific harmony singing and an arrangement that places the vocals front and center, with deft touches of organ and banjo to create an overwhelming sense of defiant wistfulness. Lines like “There’s no need to stoke up the fire / It’s warm enough when you breathe” serve to remind the listener that these honky-tonk rockers posses a rare streak of lyricism. The song’s chorus of “Dry your eyes, never grow old” could be taken both as a celebration of youthful spirit, or as a darker exhortation to suicide.
Such dichotomies lie at the heart of Wrinkle Neck Mules, and are a powerful reason why, even if they don’t quite ignite on every song here, this is still a record well worth listening to.