It turns out that music today suffers from a severe lack of accordion. Luckily, the Doc Marshalls are here to remedy this with their mix of Louisiana country and Brooklyn swagger in quite possibly the best combination since chocolate and peanut butter. On their second record, Honest for Once, the band moves seamlessly from tear-in-beer honky tonk to Flying Burrito Brothersesque alt-country to raucous Cajun dancehall tunes that make damn near every other country record released in 2008 pale in comparison.
Honest for Once rightfully opens with a moment of honesty in “Ticket Out of Texas.” While most songs about the Lone Star State are full of Pat Green style chest thumping about just how awesome it is to be a Texan, “Ticket Out of Texas” is an unflinching vignette about a girl trying in vain to leave her small town life behind: “The only thing worse than losing in a hurry / Is knowing you’ll end up back here / That perfect face was your ticket out of Texas / But no one leaves her free and clear.
This escapist theme reappears in “Dakota”, a song about a hard luck couple (composed of a stripper and a barroom musician) looking for a better life, even if one suspects they’ll never find it. Beaudoing’s strong writing makes the song simultaneously hopeful and depressing: “Put those last, tattered shreds of trust in me / And ease up on being bitter and you’ll see / The only dancing you’ll be doing in Dakota, girl / Is dancing just for me”. That’s probably the closest Honest for Once gets to a love song, and it rings truer than the countless syrupy ballads on the airwaves these days.
Two songs, “Deux Bouteilles” and “Port Barre Stomp” are sung in French; those who don’t speak the language may appreciate the translations located in the liner notes. But you don’t really need to understand the lyrics to know what frontman and songwriter Nicholas Beaudoing is singing about: faded love and the drinking that goes along with it. It sounds prettier in French, and the lively accordion and fiddle belie the downer subject matter.
And if Honest for Once weren’t good enough, there’s also a murder ballad: “You Know What the Law is in Texas”, in which love gone wrong leads to ex-stabbing and possible cop-killing. Bonus points are awarded because it’s supposedly based on a true story. The one weak spot of this album is the title track, “Honest for Once”. The songwriting is solid, but the music drags. It’s not bad, per se, but comparatively it’s just not up to par with the rest of the songs on the record.
The album’s final track displays the Doc Marshall’s debt to Gram Parsons. How could a song called “Never Found My Emmylou” be about anything else? This is the track that best exemplifies the strength of Beaudoing’s songwriting, leaving the listeners mourning Parson’s tragic death and wanting an Emmylou of their very own, “someone to sing the high part / While I take the low road out of here / And not a moment too soon.”
If talent and fame were directly proportional in the music industry, the Doc Marshalls would have radio/video airtime, worldwide fame, and millions of dollars. Until that happens, they’ll just have to be content with being one of the best unknown country bands out there. Of course, if they keep putting out music like Honest for Once and rising up the Americana charts they won’t be unknown too much longer.