Our very own Jedd Beaudoin put it best in his introduction to PopMatters’ 15 Best Americana Albums of 2016 — a plethora of releases labeled “the greatest distinction between the genre and country music”, perhaps ever. On the one hand, you have artists like Chris Stapleton and Luke Winslow-King bringing the blues back in spades, and on another, you have traditionalist bands like Lowland Hum and Chatham County Line doing their thing with a respectful folk and bluegrass ensemble that feels foreign compared to the new frills of overarching Americana at large. Somewhere in between, you have bands innovating the sound to the point that it’s nearly redefined what Americana sonically is, like the Avett Brothers did with their latest.
And then you have the Band of Heathens.
Altogether anthemic and conscious, respectful of their origins and ready to push that Americana envelope as far as they can, do everything mentioned above, and then some. Those who have stuck with the band since their 2005 beginnings will know that their lineup has changed quite a bit along with their sound, with co-founder Colin Brooks notably exiting the band following the release of Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son in 2011. Still, the Heathens carried on through Sunday Morning Record and into Duende with remaining founders Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist as sturdy masts for the band as they’ve aimed to keep an emphasis on tight harmonies in communal music.
There’s always been something of note with the Heathens’ overall sound, not unlike — as many a critic has previously pointed out — the Band, with some Southern roots rock kicks thrown in for good measure. At their core, they are definitively an Americana band, especially in the familial vibe that they’ve always encompassed, but they’ve always had a license to drive into new and exciting territory for both the genre and themselves as a band at large. Sunday Morning Record, for instance, saw them ditching much of their electric setup to develop a wholly acoustic album without a loss of any of the thrills associated with their further produced records. Top Hat proved that a band previously associated strictly with their live performances could rock it in the studio, too.
With all of that said, one would still find it hard to argue that Duende isn’t their most innovative record yet. As the trend goes, they’re daring to bend genres here. They toss in some blues, some funk, and some good, old-fashioned rock and roll flair into their more country and folk-oriented mixes to craft something entirely new while still retaining the major pillars of what makes Americana, Americana. That primarily comes in the familiar drawl of Jurdi and Quist as they expertly seize every available moment for a stellar harmony beside their backup vocalists, almost acting as the glue that holds the ensemble together as a family affair hearkening back to their mid-2000s roots.
Everything else, though, has stood to change in some way or another. They rock “Sugar Queen” with a bluesy confidence that’s sure to thrill, especially with a bouncing bassline courtesy of Scott Davis stapling together their swagger with added authenticity. “Last Minute Man” is a rollicking folk anthem worthy of radio play. “Deep Is Love” plays more along the lines of early ’90s era alternative rock while keeping that penchant to rollick — notably, the synth dusted across the track brings in an added earworm to proceedings that fans might not expect coming. “Daddy Long Legs” calls back to the ’70s and the golden age of funk with some irregular rhythm worked in to keep things fresh and even more deeply surprising. Finally, the record ends with “Green Grass of California”, promoting the legalization of marijuana with their country-slash-psychedelic jive that is utterly befitting of its subject matter.
Rather than throw darts at a page and decide what sticks whether it made sense or not, it’s abundantly clear that the Heathens have worked tirelessly on Duende to bring innovation that counts, and that makes sense when fitting together as a working machine. Whether they’re taking on country, blues, rock, funk, or an amalgamation of it all, they’re doing it with a noted purpose and fitting it into the rest of the album with a mind for cohesiveness. All in all, Duende goes down as the first notable Americana release of the New Year.