So where is the new home of country music? Nashville? Well, traditionally it has been, but it is more or less the pop crossover capital now. Texas? An argument could be made for the state since it’s been home to a plethora of great country and alt. country bands. But in the end, the new home of country music just may be Ohio. Although last year showcased the National’s self-titled album making some waves among critics, the New York band was originally from Ohio. Now this year another band is making a bit of a stir with an engaging and down-home country record that has as many gems as it does empty whiskey bottles beside it. The band is the Bygones, a group who teased most critics with an EP earlier this year with a cheap recording that showed the band’s tremendous potential. Now with Circles, the quartet led by Bill Wagner has caused even more turned heads.
“The Book” starts the album and sounds like it’s recorded on one microphone with all the musicians in one room. The mix of roots rock with traditional honky-tonk country brings to mind possible Tom Petty out-takes, but the band are extremely honed into the genres. “You were just a minor character in this half-baked stew”, Wagner sings before harmony vocals flow over a twang-riddled guitar. It also has that ragged feeling recalling Dylan or the Stones circa the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, being as loose as possible without losing the beat. “Under That Spell” has a cheesy keyboard crawling through it, but the band pull it together in the style of alt.country all-stars Golden Smog. The guitar playing between Bill Wagner and Matt Wagner works well, but the only thing that tends to drag it down a tad is the opening line of each verse, which is a bit of a stretch musically. The song ends just at the right moment though, which isn’t the case with most acts.
One of the strengths of the album is the consistency. “The Party’s Over” brings to mind an early Black Crowes, especially with the guitar work and rhythm section. This is southern without being southern-fried rock, which is a difficult musical tightrope to walk. But the song throws you a curve by moving into a faster boogie blues jam feeling on a dime. Wagner doesn’t have the pipes to adapt to the style, but the effort is memorable. The cymbal hits by Bill Heingartner only accentuate the song before Wagner goes into some Jagger-like rambling. The folk-oriented “Singin’ to Myself (And It’s the Middle of the Night)” isn’t bad and has some fine guitar picking, but might be better suited down in the tracklisting, perhaps as the closer. “Burgundy Eyes” is a bouncy track with some harmonica, but has a slower tempo in the vein of Blue Rodeo and Wilco. The flow it has, like most of the album, is nearly effortless. “The Things That Will Hold You” is a bit of a soft song, a slow waltz ballad that reeks of the past. It tends to go a bit downhill as it goes on, especially the bridge that stalls slightly.
The stop-and-start motion to “One Last Look” again brings to mind the Glimmer Twins in their heyday, with a mix of roots and rock that Wagner nails time and time again. The simple guitar riffs here say more by doing less. It also has a minimal funk quotient to it before the bridge gives it a different, hazy sixties rock feeling to it. “Sunday Evening” has a similar guitar riff as the preceding number, but is toned down a notch or two. The tune itself is a bit of a disappointment despite picking up during the second verse. The guitar work here is also again stellar. Becoming grittier and more soulful as it proceeds, the song shows a different side to this bar band. “When you’re high the future’s bright / You live a lifetime in one night”, Wagner sings before fading out. A Nebraska sparseness comes to the fore on “The Boarding House”, moving between Dylan and “The Boss” easily.
Hitting the homestretch, the Bygones appear to have made a great album, but you’d have a hard time telling them that. Not resting for a moment, the Celtic-tinged “The Old West End” has some slide guitar and piano that makes for a quasi-revue track. The narrative here is quite colorful and descriptive, making it much better. If there’s one little problem, it ends a bit short. The off-tempo downbeat of the title track brings to mind Neil Young in some respects; a laid back and relaxing pace that defies explanation. That is until the moody bridge starts up, but it’s only a brief change of pace. Finishing off with another slow-building ballad, “Anthem”, the Bygones haven’t made any major miscues on this album. For fans of the Dark Horses or Americana, this excellent album will stay in your player for an extended period of time.
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