Alabama 3 was one of the oddest and most bizarre bands in the late '90s. The mix of techno and dance beats blended with old-style Southern gospel and a hint of Hank Williams made them mainstays on the quirky fringes of rock. The song "Woke up This Morning" was a personal favorite about a year before the folks at HBO saw it fit for The Sopranos. From there, the band hit paydirt and have been riding the wave ever since. Now with a new album, which comes complete with a bonus acoustic-oriented disc, the Mountain of Love and the Very Rev. D. Wayne Love are out to show people they are just as messed up musically as they've always been.
The old-time radio static is an important part of "Two Heads", the album's opening track. The Very Rev. D. Wayne Love sings the song with a ragged gospel band in the background, but it morphs into the present and future quite effortlessly in the title track, like good dancehall music can once in a blue moon. Not as fierce or as punishing as some Primal Scream dance-rock tracks can be, the bass line and groove here is the track's biggest plus. And then the gospel touches reappear. "I will be ready for war", the line goes, before harmonicas meet pulsating beats. "Reachin'" opens with soulful female vocals before toning down into a vein that Looper did with mixed results recently. It doesn't quite work, as it sounds like they're missing an intangible that just isn't heard.
"Woody Guthrie" is a socially aware track that name-drops Columbine, Marilyn Manson, and others. It's not as powerful as Steve Earle's "Christmastime in Washington", but its mid-tempo and building funk makes it worthwhile. You might think you're hearing Rednex for a minute, but it's only a brief, horrific moment. "I don't need no country / I don't fly no flag", the first half of the chorus goes as everyone does their part to make it flow. The dance groove can be annoying at times for some artists, but A3 have made it a part of their act, so they will either live or die by it. "Year Zero" is such a song, one that starts promising and never does anything to change that notion. And it's not the glossy, polished pablum beats that are a half-dollar a dozen these days. "The Devil Went Down to Ibiza" is a weird Charlie Daniels-esque narrative that isn't thought out and is an unhappy studio accident. "Mama don't let your little girl go ravin'", they sing, perhaps an homage to Waylon and Willie.
"R.E.H.A.B." is probably the album's crowning achievement, a tune that brings "Woke up This Morning" to mind but doesn't have quite the same hook to it. It's just as enjoyable, but won't be the radio darling its breakthrough effort was. "The Moon Has Lost the Sun" begins with an eerie speech before heading down a synthesized format that takes a while to get up to snuff. The arrangement, though, is bland at best, with nothing new or inventive coming from the band on this tune. "Let the Caged Bird Sing" possesses that acoustic slant that A3 can churn at the drop of a beer bottle, and its down-home nature sets the tone early and often. "Bullet Proof" is purely bizarre, even for this group. A slower, soulful, funky tune, the female vocals match D. Wayne Love's nicely. But the Southern dirty blues guitar sounds like sonic oil and water.
The acoustic interlude of "Badlands" is a verse or two from Springsteen's Nebraska, using the title track as a music box sound can be heard seeping in, leading into the druggy-narrative "Lord Have Mercy". The acoustic bonus disc is from the "underground acoustic sessions from the steam rooms" and opens with a revamped "Woke up This Morning", the guitar strumming taking over the backbeat. For most of these tracks there aren't too many surprises and the acoustic version shows that most can stand up on their own. "Power in the Blood" has more of a somber, singer-songwriter trait deeply embedded. "U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Anymore" is void of techno and opts for a piano and guitar, resembling the late '60s period Rolling Stones. "Year Zero" is this mini-disc's highlight, a rolling and rambling Dylan-esque tune that ambles along. "Mansion on the Hill" ends this generally above average effort. It won't win them any new fans, but should keep the faithful, er, faithful!