If Hank Williams and Flannery O’Connor ever had a pair of lovechildren who grew up to be obsessed with the Book of Revelations, they might sound something like Those Poor Bastards on their second full length album, Hellfire Hymns. This band makes Gothic Country at its apocalyptic best. If you’re wanting to hear Kenny Chesney soundalikes sing about sexy tractors and honky tonk badonkadonks, you best look someplace else, because singer Lonesome Wyatt and his reclusive bandmate, The Minister, are serving up songs of damnation and misery sung with pentecostal fury. While much of today’s country music—commercial, independent, or the dreaded alt-country—features overblown instrumentation and spit-shined vocals that have been ProTooled beyond recognition, Those Poor Bastards are refreshingly minimalist in comparison, using only guitars and banjos to accompany their delightfully depraved songwriting and raw voices. There’s no steel guitar or fiddle, but this music is undeniably country, and more than a little disturbing.
Hellfire Hymns opens with “The Dust Storm”, a creepy number featuring distorted guitars that is also the catchiest song of the album. The ominous, banjo-accompanied “John Henry Gonna” transforms the steel-drivin’ folk hero into a boogeyman that lurks in the shadows, waiting to smite the ungodly with his legendary hammer: “If there’s a sin hanging over your head/ John Henry’s gonna crawl right out of that shed/Then will his hammer fall.” I may have slept with the lights on after hearing that one for the first time.
Old Testament-style wrath abounds on Hellfire Hymns, never more so than on the standout track of the album: a Nick Cave-esque version of the classic folk ballad “The Hellbound Train”, a didactic account of a barfly who dreams of his eternal damnation. You may find yourself swearing off the booze for good when Lonesome Wyatt sings the horrors of hell: “Your bones will burn in the flames that roar/ You’ll scorch and sizzle from rind to core.” “Family Graveyard” will put you right back in that bottle, though, when whiskey and blood serve as the ingredients of a resurrection song that is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories at their eeriest. To be honest, with the exception of “The Dust Storm” and “The Hellbound Train”, the songs of Hellfire Hymns needed multiple listenings before I began to appreciate and enjoy them. It’s a good record, but it’s not as immediately catchy as some of the other independent country out there. Also, I generally like my country delivered with a smooth, Lefty Frizzell-esque baritone; Lonesome Wyatt’s alternating bouts of droning and screaming took a while for me to get into. Of course, that might be easier for those of you who belonged to the black nail polish set in high school, but for me, it took a brief adjustment period.
While Those Poor Bastards first became well-known after reigning hardcore-country badass Hank Williams III covered their song “Pills I Took” (from their outstanding EP, Country Bullshit) on his 2006 album Straight to Hell and made them his opening act on multiple tours, Hellfire Hymns proves that Those Poor Bastards can stand on their own as pioneers in the fast-growing Gothic Country subgenre. Their earlier records (Country Bullshit and Songs of Desperation) are quality, but Hellfire Hymns is truly a step above all of their previous work, and a must-have for anyone who is tired of the slick Nashville scene and the overproduced androids that populate country radio. Those Poor Bastards seem to be fairly prolific artists as well, releasing The Plague sometime in February 2008; if they continue to improve like they have between Songs of Desperation and Hellfire Hymns, this upcoming record should be amazing. If they come to your town, go see Those Poor Bastards in concert… reveling in one’s misery has never been more enjoyable.