Hank3 summed up his new 40-plus song collection by saying, “I don’t like being told what to do, and I don’t need to be told what my record should sound like. I’ve got that covered.” You can rest assured that this is a true statement. Hank3 remains a potent antidote to the Kid Rocks of the world. After being dropped by Curb Records, he launched his own label, then (a few months later) released four albums-worth of material on the same day. Entirely recorded and produced by Hank3 at his home studio outside of Nashville, the new material forges a schizophrenic path that finds him caught between a banjo and a hard place.
These four albums represent a barrage of pent up creativity that works brilliantly on Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown (which have been released together in one package). Cattle Callin’ and Attention Deficit Domination are largely failed experiments that are easily excused as an expected middle-finger from a prodigal son. Free from the constraints of a label, his new found independence renders his mistakes almost forgivable. Hank3 has always been caught between his legacy and the desire to rebel against it. Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown are devoted to expanding his “Hellbilly” sound and they boast cameo appearances from the likes of Tom Waits, Alan King and Les Claypool. Cattle Callin’ and Attention Deficit Domination reaffirms that he is at his best when he chooses to embrace his roots.
Ghost to a Ghost is a stockpile of well-written (and sometimes explicit) tunes. They are at once unique and rooted in the family tradition, his nasally high tenor often bearing resemblance to Hank Sr. About half of the tunes on Ghost to a Ghost are branded with the noticeable marks of classic country. The songs “Guttertown”, “Ray Lawrence Jr.”, “Day by Day”, and “Outlaw Convention” provide clear examples of this. All the tunes on this disc are well constructed and compelling thanks to Hank’s rebellious production and pounding double bass fills. The only complaint that may be voiced by devoted fans is that some of the lyrical material feels a bit recycled from previous Hank3 releases. But the musical highlights are many. “Ridin the Wave” is a pleasing mash-up of his styles that even throws in an epic string section. Ghost to a Ghost proves to be the most accessible release of the bunch, while serving as an effective palette cleanser for the strange ambiance of Guttertown.
The Gothic Southern mythology of Guttertown forces the listener into the heart of a haunted bayou. The play between formal song structure and creepy ambient interludes is well executed. On Guttertown, Hank3 gives bloom to some of the musical ideas he began experimenting with on Straight to Hell, then pushes them even further. “Chaos Queen” works beautifully as a combination of moans, accordion, strings, and a woman’s operatic voice that fades into an electronic sample. This track is representative of some of the musical risks Hank3 pulls off well. Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown are expansive and cogent. Hank3 is a stellar songwriter when working within (and pushing the boundaries of) traditional Americana forms. The genius of his sound still demonstrates that he needn’t be afraid of losing his own voice in the process of returning home.
Cattle Callin’ and Attention Deficit Domination, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired and are best left alone. While I am sure that Hank3 is quite serious about these experiments, they only qualify as kitsch. His willingness to take risks and attempt to forge a new genre called “cattle-core” are commendable for a newly independent artist. However, these two releases go overboard into blatant self indulgence and leave the listener behind. Cattle Callin matches the staccato fire music of professional cattle callers with speed-metal instrumental thunder. It must be heard to be understood. Hank3 went to great lengths to get professional cattle callers to participate in this project and was recently quoted in the New York Post explaining the idea this way, “My granddad (Tommie Yeargain Sr., who died last year at 88) used to sell cows, and I used to go to the auction barn with him. … I was always fascinated by the speed these guys had, and I’ve also always been fascinated by the speed of heavy metal drummers like Pete Sandoval (of Morbid Angel), Dave Lombardo (of Slayer) and Gene Hoglan (of Dethklok). And I was like, man, that seems like a natural fit.” He is right to point out the musical nature of the cattle-caller craft, but this is just too much. Even a cursory listen to the album is enough to push the listener into a music-induced coma, and not in a good way. It falls so flat that he should just give Cattle Callin’ away for free.
Attention Deficit Domination is more promising, but falls into the same campy self indulgence as Cattle Callin’. This release attempts a nod toward slow shredding doom metal. The album artwork makes it clear that it is somewhat tongue-and-cheek, but why release this kind of knock-off to a wider audience? I get it. Hank3 is a metal überfan who loves bands like Black Sabbath, Pentagram, and Pantera. The influences are obvious, but Attention Deficit Domination only wishes it could posses as much power as the best doom metal evangelists. There is a noticeable lack of the vacuous bass that propels the best representatives of this genre into hell. The mixes seem sterile and more harmless than the destruction they would like to convey. These weaknesses coupled with the comical lyrics of tracks like “I Feel Sacrificed” and “Goats ‘N’ Heathans” make his take on the genre confusing. I am, admittedly, not a huge metal fan but I am guessing that this album might produce a shrug of the shoulders from a real metalhead. He might as well have gone all the way with the parody and dubbed himself as doom metal’s answer to Spin̈al Tap.
Hank3 shows some formidable chops when playing all the instruments on Cattle Callin’ and Attention Deficit Domination, but this rebel plays best when he is playing with others. He may have started by playing punk and metal, but is better when assaulting us with his unique blend of Americana. Heavy riffs run deep, but bloodlines run deeper. Now that Hank3 is free from label control, let’s hope that future releases channel his energy toward the sounds of Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown.