Friday, June 11, 2010
Old Highs and New Lows
I don’t need to tell you that, on the face of it (i.e. the radio, TV, the charts, etc.), there seems to very little real country music around anymore. The family-friendly arena rock that passes for popular C&W these days is arguably antithetical to the gritty realism of the human condition that’s supposed to be driving the form. But, as anyone who makes a habit of digging under the surface looking for good music knows, there’s plenty of real country treading the boards of the world’s honkytonks, made by artists who still get it.
Hellbound Glory is one of the flamekeepers. Hailing from the unglamorous town of Reno, Nevada, the hard-tonking quartet would probably give Nashville record execs nightmares. Old Highs and New Lows, the band’s second LP, is not a portrait of a band interested in being cuddly or getting a video on whatever CMT countdown show is running right now. Leader Leroy Virgil has no truck with the feel-good sentimentality and up-with-people homilies of Music City – not when he can write and sing about the pain, self-loathing and degradation (most of it the result of frequent visits by John Barleycorn) that hairless apes have a bigger talent for enduring than good vibes. Tunes like Too Broke to Overdose, Why Take the Pain (…when you can take pain pills) and Either Way We’re Fucked (which contains the memorable mash note Let’s close the door, turn out the lights and have a good hate fuck) may sound like filth for shock’s sake. While there’s certainly an element of humor there (as well there should be in good C&W), Virgil isn’t smirking when he sings – he’s simply reporting his characters’ low lives and attempts to escape same by chemical means in as unvarnished a manner as possible. The turns of phrase may crack a smile, but there’s nothing funny about the codependent plea of Be My Crutch, the unconvincing defiance of Hank Williams Records or the spiraling self-destruction of Slow Suicide.
The band backs up Virgil’s soulworn tales with the skill of top session cats (particularly guitarist Nick Swimley), the fire of punk rockers and the sensibilities of guys who’ve never heard a Billy Sherrill production, let alone anything from the 90s. It’s the perfect backdrop for Virgil’s bullshit-free narratives and outlaw outlook, the kind of country & western we need to wash away the stench of air freshener and new truck smell. Hellbound Glory ain’t in it for the corn or the CMAs, but for the songs and the truth.
- Michael Toland