Alabama country-punks the Dexateens still sound hell-bent and ornery on this, their strongest album so far, albeit in a more mature, reflective, back-porch sort of way.
It's taken nine years of kicking up the dust touring and three studio albums for the Dexateens to complete the transition their music hinted at all along. On Hardwire Healing, these good ole boys from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have finally picked up their instruments and steadfastly embraced southern rock. No longer are they to be found in the garage thrashing out the amp-busting, adrenaline-fuelled country-punk which heralded their self-titled 2004 debut, or playing the fine mix of swamp-boogie and distinct echoes of Exile on Main Street-era Stones channeled through a scuzzy blues-grunge that helped make up 2005's Red Dust Rising. No sir, today these boys can more likely be discovered stompin' and hollerin' from the stage of a shotgun shack nestled somewhere deep in the pines. Like their Muscle Shoals neighbours and touring buddies Drive-By Truckers, whose frontman Patterson Hood co-produced this third LP (the first one for local label Skybucket) with ex-Sugar bassist David Barbe, the Dexateens have discovered that inside every 'Bama punk there's a country rocker just waiting to escape. Naturally, they still sound hell-bent and ornery, albeit in a more mature, reflective, backporch sort of way. As the band's lead singer/guitarist Elliot McPherson has succinctly put it, "This record might be a little less raw".
Nevertheless, when the pounding beat of drummer Craig "Sweet Dog" Pickering starts to count in the infectious southern fried groove on opener "Naked Ground", and Matt Patton's gently plucked bass begins to cautiously accompany him, only to be forcefully followed by the triple-axe attack of McPherson, John Smith, and new member Nikolaus Mimikakis, you know for sure that "less raw" does not necessarily have to mean less heavy. And it's this expansive three-pronged guitar assault favoured by southern-rock pioneers Lynyrd Skynyrd that sets the country-twang tone for the rest of the album, mixing weighty riff-laden numbers such as the strutting, ass-kickin'"Makers Mound", the gritty, reverb 'n' roll of "What Money Means", and the staccato-blues stomper "Fyffe", with the sparse acoustic arrangements on tunes like the beautiful, melancholic ballad "Nadine", or the chugging smoky-blues of "Freight Train".
Still, it's not the songs that want to make a country boy get off his bar stool and kick it up that supply the highlights on this excellent record, but the more contemplative, intimate numbers which often find the quavering, country drawl of McPherson sharing a single mic with Smith while guest player John Neff's resonant pedal steel fills the gaps. Fine examples are provided by the mellow southern-soul romancer "Some Things", with its catchy, hook-laden guitar work, and the despondent folk-roots of "Downtown", a tale of hard drinking and partying which finds them trawling the same old bars with "Another set of brand new friends" just to watch the "Daylight through the panes / Last call tumbling down the drains".
Elsewhere, the honky-tonkin' "Neil Armstrong" takes off as though the Flying Burrito Brothers are passengers on a prairie rocket ship soaring into the stratosphere piloted by Neil Young, while the rolling guitar blues of "Fingertips" yields up some fine back-porch meditations just before a shack-rocking finale signals the end of the album, and what sounds like a chance for Pickering to attempt to demolish a chair with his drum sticks. Maybe a little of that punk spirit still nestles in the woodpile out back. But whatever happens next, this album proves one thing for sure, the Dexateens smoke whether they're stompin', hollerin', or serenading.