[14 May 2008]
The words “hillbilly concept album” should by rights strike fear in anyone capable of making reasonable assumptions, let alone a 20-track hillbilly concept album inspired by a real-life murder trial. But Someone’s Got to Pay, the Kansas City band’s fourth full-length record, largely succeeds in its ambition due to its tight grasp on a variety of traditional styles, and its fearlessness toward mixing and matching genres into a cohesive whole. What shouldn’t work works, and so announces the Wilders a cut above other trad-loving combos, at the very least for thinking outside one of music’s most rigid boxes.
The task of expanding one of folk music’s oldest templates, the murder ballad, into a 50-minute opus had the potential to turn out a whole bunch of ways: overly pious, somber, or intellectually removed. However, the Wilders’ inspiration wasn’t just a love of “Down in the Willow Garden” or “Knoxville Girl”, but multi-instrumentalist Phil Wade’s own experience of sitting on the jury of a first-degree murder trial. Wade was able to make a concrete connection between the seemingly antiquated crimes of passion of say, “Banks of the Ohio”, and their very real and common modern-day equivalents. Furthermore, after the trial had concluded, Wade was not left with any easy answers or conclusions about crime and justice, noting in the album’s press materials that “her needless death and his lifetime incarceration seemed so pointless and continues to bother me even now”.
That type of bother is rich stuff for a writer, so it’s no surprise that Wade and company were able to extract so much from all of the issues surrounding his experience. Further, the band throws everything they’ve got into the pot; any four songs in succession are head-spinning. “Collard Greens”, a spry fiddle tune segues into “Hey Mr. Judge”, a brief solo piano interlude which then leads to the banjo-driven lament “Sittin’ on a Jury: The Defense” which gives to way to the hillbilly honky-tonk of “Sorry I Let You Down”. And though the album boasts 20 tracks, many hover around between one and two minutes in length, giving Someone’s Got to Pay a sense of frenzied and scattered urgency and no chance to get boring. The interstitial cuts also compliment the fuller songs by softening some of the more jagged breaks in style. In fact, it takes three brief cuts to forge a link between fiddler Betse Ellis’s excellent “Rock in the Woods” with the album’s closer, “Goodbye (I’ve Seen It All)”, whose breezy ‘60s pop sounds most distant from the band’s general mien.
However, though the Wilders’ genre-hopping can get a little disorienting, I’m happy to report that they sound more than capable at whatever they try, without sounding forced or gimmicky. “Goodbye”, for example, is entirely convincing with its ridiculously catchy hooks and harmonized choruses, even after 45-minutes of mostly rural music. In fact, both the stylistic and instrumental virtuosity almost overshadow the album’s conceit. The stomping opener, “Wild Old Nory” kicks up such a storm that it’s easy to miss or not even worry about how its story gibes with larger themes. The inventiveness of burying police sirens in the mix of the bluesy lurch of “Sittin’ on a Jury: Prologue” is as compelling as the song’s exposition, if not more. The solo instrumental piano tracks, all given lower-case titles like “raised up my right hand” and “davey took a gun and killed his wife” all offer moments to pause and reflect that serve the album’s purpose as well as the songs giving voice to both prosecution and defense. And in the end, that’s exactly what makes the whole hillbilly concept album thing work against expectation: the Wilders approaching a complicated story from as many angles as possible, daring and deft enough to pull it off.