Reckless Kelly might not yet be reckless enough to knock down the walls of their country-rock roadhouse, but their raw devotion to the ruffian lifestyle makes for music that’s satisfyingly rough around the edges.
Whether or not Reckless Kelly lives up to the madcap bravado the band name claims has always depended in part on how one defines “reckless”. The Austin-based band rarely ventures beyond the boundaries of its straightforward, hard-driving country rock genre, but the sheer confidence of the swagger with which they deliver their songs of liquor and women and the road gives the impression that this is a band who enjoys pushing well above the speed limit. This holds true for the band’s latest, Bulletproof (its first recording for Yep Roc Records, following a fruitful tenure with Sugar Hill), a uniformly solid collection of songs that won’t change anyone’s notion of what country rock sounds like, but whose rowdy, raw energy continues to contain a surge of adrenaline.
This is a band with no pretensions to anything but rocking hard enough to kick up dust, and they are clearly have the skills to do so. Lead singer Willy Braun announces the record’s itinerary in its first lines: “This road I’m on is blacktop and gravel / It’s a faded blue line”. Later in that same stanza, Braun acknowledges that “it’s a well worn path”, but declares himself to be unapologetically “ragged as the road I’m on”. The song, “Ragged as the Road”, was written as a tribute to Woody Guthrie, but it also serves as the band’s aesthetic template. “It’s steel wheels turnin’ on steel rails singin’”, Braun sings over a train-chugging rhythm and lead guitarist David Abeyta’s distorted guitar chords, further textured by brother Cody Braun’s mandolin. “Steel wheels turning on steel rails singing” is a good metaphor for the band’s sound -- propulsive and churning and filling up the wide, clear spaces it passes through.
Musically, the rest of the album makes no great departures from the twanging, churning opener. Though the record occasionally takes a respite in waltzing ballads like “I Never Had a Chance”, its heart is clearly in its guitar distortion. The most straightforwardly earnest love song on the album, “Love in Her Eyes”, is primarily notable for a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place inserted in the middle of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”. But the focus on buzzing guitar chords doesn’t mean the album is musically simple. In its better moments, the band follows its country road out to further pastures, as when they complement their guitar fuzz with sprinting Celtic fiddle lines. The bridge of “Passing Through”, for example, has the fiddle and guitar chasing off after one another, as they do on the high-lonesome standout “Mirage”. Prolific pedal steel player Lloyd Maines shows up as well, and his work, along with the organs and strings provided by the band, gives the songs a pleasing sonic depth beneath the bar hall raucousness.
At other points, though, the band reaches out towards a more punk edge -- with their swagger and alt-country leanings, it would be a natural edge for the band to find -- but stumbles. “A Guy Like Me”, the band’s slightly too self-conscious outing of themselves as “bad boys”, begins with a bass riff and thudding percussion that sounds a bit too much like Green Day’s “Holiday”. Additionally, lyrically the album isn’t quite as full of “death defying songs for looters and thieves” as the cover art advertises. Most of the songs aren’t quite that dangerous -- they tell a more traditional story of the rough-hewn traveling man who can’t stay in town long enough to make good for the sweet girl he falls for anyway. About eight of the fourteen songs fall somewhere into this narrative arc, and while Braun’s vocal performance and the band’s musicianship are strong and rough enough to keep the edges of the songs sharp, none really pop to the front of the pack.
It’s the rare lyricist who is more interesting and less predictable when on a political bent, however, and it is on Bulletproof’s foray into protest music that Braun’s songs really warrant attention. Reckless Kelly has heretofore stayed away from politics, but midway through this album, Braun’s emotion, unfiltered by irony or pretense, turns abruptly from yearning and restlessness to anger:
Johnny can’t drink ‘cause Johnny’s not twenty-one
But he’s eighteen and pretty handy with a gun
They shipped him off to a foreign land
Gave him a new pair of boots and thirteen grand
And he came back home
With American blood on his hands.
Johnny is an American archetype, but George, “American Blood”’s other character, is quite specific. And in verse after verse, as Braun contrasts Johnny’s story to George’s, it is very clear where Braun rests the blame for Johnny’s tragedy. The song is direct and the frustration is taut, and the raw anger of the song has been drawing attention (the band has also set up a section of their site devoted to fans’ dedications to those in military service). But the song is also refreshing in the clear line that Braun draws between anger at the United States and anger at the United States government. “God bless America, but God damn Uncle Sam”, Johnny rails after losing his legs, and the song is clear evidence (if any was needed) that patriotism and sharp criticism of American government policy is far from mutually exclusive. “Black gold for silver stars”, Braun sings, “Cold hard cash for armored cars / The brass ain’t fighting / But they’re sure as hell taking a stand / And they’ll have to live with American blood on their hands”. The song damns the war most for its destruction of American lives, and for the strangeness of sending boys deemed far too young to moderate their alcohol consumption to war and keeping them there long enough to grow old enough to drink their pain away.
Likewise, “God Forsaken Town”, Braun’s narrative of Hurricane Katrina, co-written with Robert Earl Keen, paints a portrait of life in the flood that is so literal that it’s almost absurdist (“There’s children in the treetops and soldiers in the sky”). The narrator’s moment-to-moment perspective shifts as the floodwaters rise and recede, but the narrator’s resignation to his fate (“Let the storm and all its fury come and carry me away / Take me to that place somewhere on higher ground”) underscores Braun’s melancholy.
In their frustration and anger, Reckless Kelly are keeping in the tradition of a long line of populist anger emanating from the most grassroots of the country tradition, and more generally, it’s in that tradition that the band seems happy to stay. They’re conformists to an outlaw tradition, and they seem content to fill the well-worn niche of the knockabout life. The band might still not yet be reckless enough to knock down the walls of that niche, but their devotion to the ruffians of the road can still generate music that’s satisfyingly rough around the edges.