The Waybacks: Loaded

[30 April 2008]

By Juli Thanki

It’s a good thing we have words like “Americana” to define the Waybacks’ style of music, because calling it “bluegrass-pop-soul-folk-jazz-rock-with-touches-of-klezmer-and-classical” is a little unwieldy.

Fiddle/mandolin virtuoso Warren Hood is obviously the Joey McIntyre of the group (the youngest, the cutest, and the best singer).  His is a tenor straight from the Victrola Era, with a little Stax Records worthy croon thrown in for good measure.  Hood’s molasses-smooth vocals on “Savannah” will, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, make you want to spend some time in a double hammock with a swingin’ redhead broad, while his instrumental song “Black Cat” proves that fiddles are in fact capable of rocking.  Frontman James Nash is the stronger songwriter of the two; the best tracks on Loaded come from his pen.  Drummer Chuck Hamilton and bassist Joe Kyle Jr. stay out of the spotlight, but provide solid, power-poppish backing, and, if you’re fortunate enough to attend a Waybacks live show, it’s Kyle who delivers the wacky and sarcastic stage banter.

Loaded opens with “City Boy”, a song whose wry humor and catchy chorus epitomize the Waybacks’ style.  Things quickly get more serious with “The River”, a song seemingly inspired both by flooding in California as well as Hurricane Katrina.  If that wasn’t depressing enough, the album quickly progresses to “Loaded”, a Southern-rock-lite tale about a barfly who gets his wedding ring stolen by a lady with a gun.  Luckily, Hood’s upbeat yet slyly self-deprecating “Tired of Being Right” keeps the album from descending too far into sheer despair: “I knew that you’d leave me on a Sunday / And you’d have a brand new man by Monday night / Honey, I knew all along / I wish you’d prove me wrong / I’m getting tired of always being right”.

The standout track of the album is “Beyond the Northwest Passage”, a history lesson and environmental protest wrapped up in an infectious sea shanty.  For those of you who spent your college years having fun instead of cracking the books, the treacherous Northwest Passage was for centuries the holy grail of explorers until finally navigated in the early 1900s.  Thanks to global warming, the once icy seaway is now much easier to travel, something Nash decries as the erasing of a triumphant history in the name of progress.  The Greencards show up to lend some vocals to the rowdy, tin-whistle accompanied chorus: “What wonder will we find ahead / What new land will we ravage / Will sirens’ call shipwreck us all / Beyond the Northwest Passage”.

The Waybacks also try their hand at country music on “Conjugal Visit”, a wry story-song featuring Abby, a young gal with an inmate daddy and a “hard-workin’, tough-lovin’” mama.  The final lyric doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (“We all come from a conjugal visit”.  We do?  News to me.), but the song is so catchy that this is easily overlooked.  The best way to describe the song is “Robbie Fulks meets Weird Al”, and really, can you think of anything more awesome than that? 

Originally pigeonholed as solely a bluegrass band, the Waybacks’ genre-hopping and myriad influences make Loaded seem like a mixtape made just for you by your infinitely cooler friend.  The sound may not be easily categorized, but it is damn good.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-waybacks-loaded/