[18 November 2009]
There’s a certain charm to the Band of Heathens that sets them apart from many of their Texas Americana counterparts. Perhaps it’s the recklessness of their craft, or the genuine Texas charm they sell so easily, or perhaps it’s their back story that (given the band’s name) should map out like some type of typical outlaw legend, only to be much more simpler than the mythos of Willie or Waylon. Three songwriters team up one night, get some other players, and are billed under the wrong name, only to find that term appealing and so they adopt the moniker “Band of Heathens” and do everything they can to make sure they live up to that title.
Whatever the charm is, it works incredibly well in their favor in both a commercial and artistic manner. Their first studio album topped the Americana charts, and their follow up, One Foot in the Ether, builds on the unfocused, organic rawness of the debut into something as electrifying as an early Black Crowes album. Not an easy task to accomplish, but the band uses all their swagger and charm to bring real life to tunes like “Say”, and it’s precisely that charm that allows the band to sell lines like “There’s blisters on the back of my sole” from opening “L.A. County Blues”, which should read like a pedestrian tale of clichéd rebel life, but instead becomes a soulful, insightful, and blistering tale of determination.
Naming the influence of the album isn’t completely difficult. There’s some Drive-By Truckers, a bit of Little Feat, and even some Flying Burrito Brothers, but what’s interesting is how the band so effortlessly take these influences and twist them to their advantages. The Stonesy build-up of “Shine a Light” should sound redundant and obvious, with a Hammond Organ and backing vocals meant to evoke the spirituality of a choir, but the way the vocal harmonies are layered recalls—of all things—the Million Dollar Quartet’s phenomenal rendition of “Have a Little Walk With Jesus”. That “Shine a Light” is followed by a song as gritty as “Golden Calf” is a pleasant surprise, but the real treat comes when the dying and pleading vocal delivery is suddenly interrupted by a noisy and frustrating distortion grind that perfectly complements the simple yet forceful lyrics.
That’s not to say the album lacks flaws. While the beginning of the album sounds a full world removed from the monotonous Nashville sound, the middle of the album finds the band sounding oddly and sadly like they’re trying to break into the country charts. “What’s This World” is produced like middle of the road country-pop, with a laundry list of lyrics that sound like something from a Tim McGraw album. Meanwhile, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sounds like Aerosmith as covered by Big and Rich, and “Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled” is as saccharine and heavy-handed as anything Alabama has ever put on record.
Luckily, the band do have superior taste in other musicians’ work. Like Miranda Lambert did on her sophomore album, the Band of Heathens decided to grab a song from the wonderful Gillian Welch’s seemingly flawless catalogue. The band’s cover of “Miss Ohio” may lack the bleak and stark pain of the original, but the guys do their best, adding a bluesy guitar line and allowing the song to build up to a throat-shredding explosion that is far more spiritual than their earlier stabs from the middle cuts. “Miss Ohio” would have made for a terrific album closer, but two other tracks—“Talking Out Loud” and “Hey Rider”—follow and bog down the album significantly. “Hey Rider” may make references to world peace, “sisters and brothers”, and “sticks and stones”, but it seems like a forced image in order to milk a specific emotion, and ultimately sounds robotic and mechanic.
What the Band of Heathens really need is an editor. Cutting back on some tracks may go against the typical jam-band cannon, but had a few songs (specifically the middle of the album and the final two songs) been cut or replaced with work on par with Gillian Welch’s penmanship, One Foot in the Ether would have been a phenomenal album. Instead, it’s just a pretty good one. There’s no reason this album shouldn’t claim the top of the Americana charts again, and perhaps even find an audience with the folks who are diehard Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson fans, while the band hopefully find a way to get their craft on par with their charm.