Greatest hits albums are strange beasts. They can be a stellar introduction to an artist whose catalogue is huge. Don’t know that much about the Rolling Stones? Buy a greatest hits collection and then fill out your library. This can work out beautifully.
But then there’s Ace of Base. That band has a greatest hits record, too. And I don’t know why. Something tells me they had a contract to keep and no new music with which to fill it. This exemplifies an unfortunate greatest hits collection.
Witness Alabama 3 (a.k.a. A3). Last Train to Mashville Vol. 2 functions as a Best Of—of sorts. Rather than lining up all the band’s radio hits (the theme to The Sopranos and ... anything else?), this album features totally reworked favorites from A3’s previous records. The tracks range from stripped-down acoustic versions to soul-saturated lounge tunes. The album succeeds on two counts: 1) the songs stand alone as solid country and blues songs, and 2) these alternate versions prove that the band is versatile.
A3 are a strange lot. Boasting eight band members with such excellent names as The Spirit, the Rev. D. Wayne Love, and the mountain of love, this British blues/electronica outfit has been writing and performing some of the most down-and-dirty yet innovative rock music to ever not hit mainstream radio.
The band formed in the mid-‘90s and released Exile on Coldharbour Lane in 1997. In 1999, “Woke Up This Morning” was chosen as the theme song for HBO’s The Sopranos. This success didn’t exactly skyrocket the band into the public eye or make the members filthy rich. However, they did keep making music. La Peste followed in 2000 with more Hank Williams- and Tom Waits- inspired electronic music. Power in the Blood marked A3’s third full-length release, and Last Train to Mashville Vol. 2 is the follow up to that album of new material.
Last Train opens with an acoustic version of “Woke Up This Morning”, a version that invokes a Nebraska highway disappearing into the distance rather than inner-city gangsters. Move The Sopranos out west and turn the clock back to the 1930s and now you’ve got the feel of this track.
On “Too Sick to Pray”, singer Rev. D. Wayne Love mourns the loss of his youth and health. Granted, his sickness is due mainly to drug abuse, but “Just because I burnt my bible, baby / It don’t mean I’m too sick to pray”.
“Year Zero” features Rock Freebase’s blues guitar and a knee-slapping, shuffling groove that advocates dancing “like it’s Year Zero”. “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” is an excellent John Prine cover, originally released on the band’s debut. Drummer L.B. Dope provides a shambling beat while the harmonica lends the otherwise upbeat tune a dusty feel.
“Bullet Proof”, originally released on Power in the Blood, is transformed into a quiet soul tune both in Rev. D. Wayne Love’s early-Tom-Waits-influenced vocals and keyboard player The Spirit’s beautiful and simple piano melody. Also from Power in the Blood is “Let the Caged Bird Sing”, an old jailbird song about flowers blooming on Alcatraz. “Woody Guthrie” is a biting commentary on post-Columbine-and-September 11th culture, written in Guthrie-like verses. The Reverend deadpans “the Stars and Stripes have got me jetlagged”.
The Reverend’s vocal inflections put him in another, older time period. And on this stripped-down record, Alabama 3 sound like they belong in a 1930s saloon out west, rather than a smoke-filled pub in London. Oddly enough, the two images aren’t that disparate. Check out Last Train to Mashville Vol. 2 to get one idea about A3. Then listen to any of their previous albums to hear the original versions of these songs, and get a wholly different one. Discover a transcontinental group.