Hard Working Americans offer up a heaping helping of kick-ass, blues-drenched, old-school American rock and roll served with a side of fuck-all.
When you name your band Hard Working Americans, you're making a bold statement that your product is aimed for a particular kind of audience.
Once upon a time, that audience would have been prominently made up of the working class, the kids who took shop and planned on factory jobs. The folks who played Creedence and Springsteen songs on repeat in their car stereos and who would listen to any new songs with a sense of suspicion, weighing whether they kicked enough ass to get added into the rotation. But that audience, and America, has changed pretty radically since Creedence broke up and Springsteen moved to Hollywood and, for some fans, got all liberalized.
The idea of "hard working Americans" has gotten complicated, because the jobs those kids in shop were prepping for got shipped overseas while we entered the new age of the robber barons. Hard work doesn't just mean knuckle-busting or back-breaking labor alone anymore; it means 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks to maintain a basic salaried job, or a sequence of 15- to 20-hour service industry jobs here and there in search of a semblance of full-time pay (without benefits).
In his May 2016 cover article for The Atlantic, "The Secret Shame of the Middle Class", Neal Gabler cites this chilling calculation from the Russell Sage Foundation: "the inflation-adjusted net worth of the typical household, one at the median point of wealth distribution, was $87,992 in 2003. By 2013, it had declined to $54,500, a 38 percent drop." It's not just America's shrinking industrial professions that are feeling the squeeze. Incomes in many of the professional class vocations have not risen to keep ahead of increasing cost-of-living expenses in the way they had in decades previous to the middle '90s. Gabler's article is centered around a seemingly trivial fact: according to the Federal Reserve Board, 47% of respondents would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing the money or selling something. If that statistic is true, nearly half of Americans pass through their daily lives one little stumble away from financial crisis. An unexpected car repair of trip to the emergency room can set off an avalanche of fiscal insecurity.
There should be a large audience for the bold new Hard Working Americans record, and not just because the times are so tough. Rest in Chaos just plain kicks some serious ass. The band is comprised of Todd Snider (lead vocals), Dave Schools (bass), Neal Casal (guitar), Duane Trucks (drums), Chad Staehly (keyboards), and Jesse Aycock (guitars). They've been tagged as a supergroup because of the members' previous credentials: Schools founded Widespread Panic; Casal was a member of Ryan Adams' Cardinals and is himself a well-respected singer/songwriter; Staehly has played with Great American Taxi and Trucks comes from Southern rock royalty and spent four years as part of Colonel Bruce Hampton's band. This is Hard Working Americans' second album, their eponymous debut having been released in 2014. That record offered a smart collection of covers of strong contemporary songwriters like Will Kimbrough, Kevin Gordon, Brian Hennemen, and David Rawlins & Gillian Welch, highlighted with a mournful version of Drivin 'n Cryin's "Straight to Hell". This record finds the band staking their own claim to a neo-realism in their songwriting, led by Snider, building on the models they've followed.
The first single and album opener, "Opening Statement", sets a tone of grit and whiskey-soaked honesty. Over a fuzzy, ringing guitar riff, the bass and organ kick in to lay down a smoky groove for Snider's anti-press conference commentary. The song underlines the kind of cultural anxiety and malaise Gabler describes in his article, highlighting our desperate, collective search for release, "We're going down that road / Feeling bad because that's what people do / It's like every night is a Friday night / And every day is a Friday night too." This is tell it like it is songwriting, flipping a middle finger in self-destructive spite at a wider world that kills us slowly. Dare to look for meaning and you're stuck with a "Half Ass Moses".
The album's songs are a collection of hard-lived hard luck tales. "It Runs Together" tells a fast-paced story of love at first sight in the alcohol treatment clinic and escape into a royal bender that ends with news of Phil Hartman's murder by "a girl we knew from the clinic" leading to a mix of bitter humor ("seemed like her dream to be on TV was coming true") and self-reflection ("In my will there will be no dispute / That I left everything to chance"). The narrator of "Burn Out Shoes" expresses neither apologies nor regrets for the rock and roll downward spiral he is on, declaring "I say, 'Believe in me or to Hell with you' / Ain't that exactly what Jesus would do." In "Acid", the narrator shares a similar dark humor, ruminating over a career on the edges of rock and roll fame, undone by the drug of the title, but giving a shout-out to the Moody Blues. "Massacre" sums it all up in beautiful loser poetry, "Broken people can't be stopped or saved / We're like hurricanes or tidal waves / We leave a little mark on you like oh so what / So does lipstick on the sidewalk end of a cigarette butt."
The album's title comes from its most mournful song, "Ascending into Madness", which is destined to get played at a hell of a lot of funerals for a hell of a lot of the kind of badass pluggers, fighters, and strivers who populate this excellent album and who represent, at the end of the day, regular people with big hearts trying to make it through hard times. "I'll quit drinking for the reason I started drinking / When it makes me feel better than I already do," sings Snider in a great line as he bids a farewell, "Rest in chaos, my old friend."
Like the first, Dave Schools mans the production booth. He keeps Snider's voice in the front of the mix to emphasize the lyrics while supplying as well a deep bottom for the band to rock hard. Rest in Chaos is one to put on the car stereo, hit repeat, and drive. Destination: wherever the hell it takes you.