[25 June 2008]
The Molenes’ Songs of Sin and Redemption begins with a bit of bait-and-switch: the first track, “Redemption” is a banjo-laden bluegrass ditty that convinces you you’ll be hearing Appalachian fleet-fingered-ness for the rest of the way. And it doesn’t mean you won’t, it’s just jolting—and a little fun—when the “Redemption” breakdown winds its way into “There’s a Sufferin’,” track two, which has a meaty electric guitar lead that’s all power chords and the beefiest country rock.
What that one-two punch does is serve notice of the things the Molenes, a quartet from New Hampshire, do well. That means, yep, hard-driving country rock songs with enough twang, energy and galloping tempo to cover up occasions when rote and lyrics about, well “sufferin’” and “redemption” threaten to rule the day. “Bring the Bottle,” “Beacom’s Farm,” and especially, the rollicking “Silver Stars” keep you plugged in and ready for a shot and a beer back and any other hoary honky tonk metaphor you want, and the Molenes have earned a reputation as a go-to New England live act because of it.
But the lows are too nagging to totally ignore, and now that you know the Molenes can make an album as serviceable as Songs, you’re ready to skip ahead to when they make a better, tighter, fiercer one. Frontman Dave Hunter’s a good singer, but shaky for cry-in-your-beer stuff like “You Are Not Gone” that don’t have enough weight to buoy their slowness. Supposedly there’s a Hammond B3 player in the band, but it’s so rare he gets to stretch out that you’d never know he was a full-timer and that the well-employed pedal steel guest on five tracks was not. Most country rock albums suffer from overproduction and crowded instrumental arrangements; the Molenes’ is the first these ears have heard in ages where things are a little too spare, especially with such obviously talented personnel and a range of available flavors.
Overall, a mixed bag—for every track that kicks and struts, there’s another song that sounds like it was workshopped in an undergraduate course called “the art and craft of the country rock song,” and you could tell that from the titles. But there are a pair of cuts that convince you the Molenes have lots of room to not only grow, but get there: “Silver Stars,” which has a West Coast/Grateful Dead vibe as much as it does a Lubbock one, and “Trouble in the Corn,” which starts out as a slog but slowly reveals layers of dread and menace previous Molenes songs didn’t suggest. More of that, please.