[13 May 2009]
The Boxmasters return with their third album, Modbilly. Drummer and frontman W.R. (“Bud”) Thornton may eschew his fame and notoriety, but his informal, famous name is how most of us are hearing of this band. The outfit’s name conjures the crude term for a man’s ego-inflated and exaggerated “successful” way with women. The Boxmasters purportedly arranged their sound like a 1960s rock band whose dark themes contrast against their catchy hooks and peppy rhythms. While many of their songs have a rocking feel, the most successful songs follow the rockabilly and country patterns.
Bud perhaps puts it best by describing the Boxmasters as “electric hillbilly”. His gruff, cigarette-weakened vocals lend a certain authority to song fodder like hard livin’ and blue collar circumstances. As a drummer, Bud also excels the most when he just keeps the tempo at a country pace. When he wanders into more pop-rock territory, he tends to overuse the hi-hat, cymbals, and tambourine to keep time, resulting in an overly tinny sound. J.D. Andrew provides some resinous country bass-lines, guitars, and background vocals. Again, in the more country-leaning songs, the harmonies punch more accurately and achieve a better success than the fairly muddy harmonies found on the straight-forward rock songs. Finally, Mike Butler provides lead guitar, lap steel and Dobro, rounding out the twangy trio.
The double-disc album devotes the first disc to original songs, while the second consists of all cover songs. Right away, “Heartbreakin’ Wreck” starts the album with heavy-hitting drumming and jangling guitars. Bud’s lowbrow, badass authority is displayed when he stammers the first lines, “Believe me, Buddy, she’s hot as hell and smart as a whip” and “I’m livin’ on the edge and I’ve nearly fallen off”. With this cool attitude comes a slew of humorous lines and situations. “Two Weeks Notice” is a breakup song that coins such genius lines as “I’m about to dump me an 110-pound load”. The Western shout-along features a more exaggerated Southern accent (perhaps recalling his rural Arkansas childhood). The man simply emits laid-back badassery. One of the album highlights, “Reasons for Livin’”, further exemplifies Bud’s hard-livin’ experience. When he sings of the “sore on [his] lip now and then”, one takes him at his word. Andrew’s low bass tone and Butler’s spring reverb practically take the listener to cowboy country. “Hollow Walls” treads in bluegrassier waters than some of the other selections. The minor chords, dissonant vocal harmonies, and militaristic drumming style concoct a haunting soundscape underneath such foreboding lines as “You hollow walls, I can’t walk past anymore”.
“Turn It Over” unfortunately brings the seamless country sound to a screeching halt, as the alt-country rocker floods the air with muddy harmonies and grating melodies. As mentioned previously, the drumming overwhelms the track with an abundance of crashing metal. Bud’s voice at this point sounds incredibly forced and throaty. Even during the falsetto moments, the notes just don’t hit right. A weird lyric including the phrase “the musings of a clown” will continue to taunt this reviewer indefinitely. Next, while the next track, “I Don’t Wanna Know” has a very country feel to it, the riff sounds basically lifted from the Grateful Dead’s “Friends of the Devil”.
The second disc supposedly reflects the impeccable taste of the band members, and the selections certainly seem well-chosen. Then there are occasional moments when the listener wonders if the boys have what it takes to pull off successful versions of some of the tunes. For instance, The Turtles’ “Elenore” overreaches vocally, as Bud’s vocals strain outside his range. The layers of falsetto sound good in theory, but the actual production disappoints. Instead, the listener hears mostly just noise. A similar problem happens in the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By”. Bud’s voice just isn’t strong enough to serve as lead in this key.
When the Boxmasters do pull covers off, they do so with aplomb. Tom Rush’s “Merrimack County” has the giddy-up bass-line, dreamy Dobro, and Bud’s vocals are spot-on. Honky tonk “Dime at a Time”, made famous by Norma Jean and Ernest Tubb (and written by Jerry Chesnut and Dottie Bruce) satisfies with rockabilly slap-back. Basically, when the Boxmasters stick to a country format with Bud’s baritone nestled in its ideal range, they succeed. The band drifting too far away from its comfort zone results in somewhat boring, grating musical moments.