The Band of Heathens are yet another band to come out of Austin, Texas. I guess with all those live music venues needing musicians to fill them 51 weeks out of the year and a well-established reputation as one of the music capitals of the world, the town offers plenty of chances for a new band to hone its chops. For the Band of Heathens those opportunities led to a couple of years worth of playing out and finding their sound. Plus a live album along the way. The band’s first few years culminates in this, their self-released, self-titled studio debut, a polished collection of 11 songs.
The band studiously avoids the use of the term “country” in their descriptions, preferring to compare themselves to southern rockers like the Drive-By Truckers and the Black Crowes. But while those bands toe and sometimes blur the line between rock and country, the Band of Heathens goes way over that line, landing pretty far on the country side. Today their sound would probably get them categorized into the alt-country category with their DIY ethic and their low-key, down-home approach. But, vagaries of genre classification aside, The Band of Heathens is an album worth listening to, particularly for those who are willing to stretch their ears away from indie rock for a bit.
The Band of Heathens is a three-guitar, three-frontman group. Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist, and Colin Brooks collectively share singing and songwriting duties in the band. All three are good singers, and all three have a slight rasp and twang which fits well with the overall sound of the band. Seth Whitney plays bass while John Chipman provides drums and percussion, and both do some backing vocals on the album as well. The disc opens with “Don’t Call on Me”, an upbeat Jurdi song about a man wanting to be left alone, to the point of leaving town. Second song “Jackson Station” is a Jurdi/Quist duet that brings to mind a pair of guys playing the blues on a ramshackle front porch. “Maple Tears” is a plaintive love song about falling for a girl from the great plains of Canada. Patty Griffin makes her first of three appearances here, with some very sweet-sounding backing vocals.
Colin Brooks’ first tune on the album is “Heart on My Sleeve”, a bright, poppier song with the catchy chorus “I’ve got my heart strapped to my sleeve / I’ve got my sleeve tucked in my jeans / I’ve got my jeans stuffed in my boots / Got my boots walking back to you.” Brooks is also responsible for the goofy “Cornbread”, a loping acoustic song that spends nearly five minutes singing the praises of the titular food. The album’s highlight may be its centerpiece, the tender Jurdi folk song “40 Days”. Griffin duets with Jurdi among textured piano lines and beautiful, understated guitar playing. The rest of The Band of Heathens is solid. The band stays right in their comfort zone, but with three songwriters and singers things don’t get stale.
This is a band that probably won’t appeal to everybody. Fans of roots music, southern rock, and country in general will be pretty satisfied, though. The Band of Heathens is a great-sounding album with good production values, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are bigger things in store for these guys down the road. I happened to catch about 20 minutes of them live a few months ago when they were playing a record store in Houston, and they had a lot of energy and seemed to be having a great time. This album captures a lot of that live energy while smoothing out some of their rougher edges, and it’s worth a look.