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Published: 2012/12/06
by Brian Robbins

Horsehead
Sympathetic Vibrations

Emerald City Sounds

Go ahead – reel off your favorite alt-country/Americana/whatever-you-want-to-call-it albums of all time … the seminal statements of the genre. What would be on the list?

Son Volt’s Trace ? Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street ? Hollywood Town Hall by The Jayhawks? Wilco’s A.M. ?

Whatever the albums are, what about them grabs ahold of you? Smart lyrics and a stone-real delivery? A haybale punk vibe? Garage pop crossed with Exile On Main Street -style cellar funk? Twanging crunch? Crunchy twang?

Here – have some of all of the above. World, meet Horsehead. The album is Sympathetic Vibrations – their fourth – and I humbly offer it up as being real and good and raggedy and right.

Sympathetic Vibrations delivers – name your poison, bucko. The album enters softly with “Moving Target” – just Horsehead principals Jon Brown and Kevin W. Inge (the self-proclaimed “Dimmer Twins”). Brown leads the way on vocals with acoustic guitar in hand, while Inge infuses the tune with wisps of keys and lovely pedal steel. By the way, it’s worth noting that the frigging guy – Inge – basically taught himself pedal for this album. If you’re not familiar with the beast’s workings – foot pedals, knee levers, ten strings and all – then Inge’s accomplishment might be lost on you. Trust me – there are folks who’ve been pickers all their lives who wouldn’t dare get near a pedal steel in a recording studio. Inge may be a rookie steeler, but he handles it like a seasoned pro, adding washes of sparkle amongst the grit on “Get Up” and putting the thing on full stun for “Spinning Your Wheels” with a slightly raspy-voiced tone that is absolutely beautiful.

Brown is the band’s lead voice and tunesmith. The album’s 13 cuts show he knows how to convey his songs’ souls (and the characters who inhabit them) in short order – from the heartbroke, dirt-streaked weariness of “God Damned The Rain To Fall” (Travis Rinehart’s guest banjo completes the picture) to the ominous won’t-take-no-for-an-answer stalk of “Sweet On You”. On “Emptiest Arms In The World” Brown delivers the goods with flannel-shirted soul and the confidence of a man who could rebuild his own carburetor. And the good-byes of “Candy” leave you wishing him well and hoping like hell that he and that gal end up together in a good place.

Bassist Randy Mendicino ended up swapping rhythm partners midway through the Sympathetic Vibrations session when longtime drummer Andre LaBelle left the band and Gregg Brooks settled in behind the kit. It’s a tribute to all three that the transition was a seamless one and only the liner notes tell the tale – there are no obvious splits between the Mendicino/LaBelle and Mendicino/Brooks tunes. Dig the nuts-on lurch of “Darkened Streets” (think vintage Molina/Talbot slam – and listen for the “Norwegian Wood” tease in the guitar break); the driving rhythm of “Running For The Door” tears along like a cousin to Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309” before Brooks and Mendicino shift gears and go into full surf mode; “Wasting Time” is big and majestic – beat-down, but not without pride just the same.

Multi-instrumentalist Inge (we’ve already discussed his grossly-amazing pedal steel contributions) is all over this thing: doubling up with Brown on guitar here … adding some organ here … a bit of piano here … a master of divining what a particular tune needs – no more and no less. Horsehead buddy (and Drive-By Trucker) Jay Gonzales sits in on piano for a couple of tunes, the most notable being the walloping rocker “Big Sun”.

“Big Sun” alone could sell you on Horsehead: wicked grab-you-by-both-ears opening guitar riffs; big bass swoops and straight-ahead drumming; enough crash-and-thrash to get your attention before settling into the palm-muted chug of the verses. Brown tells his tale perfectly about the folder at a laundromat who “smelled of soap and cigarettes.” It’s obvious the story can go only go one way – and the fact that the song evolves into a total guitar workout is the perfect way to tell the tale. The song fades at about the 5-minute mark, but comes roaring back with an eff-you-we’re-not-done attitude: Mendicino and Brown join forces while Brooks rolls and tumbles in glorious drum ecstasy; and Inge simply plays the piss out of his six-string. Of all the titles Horsehead wears well, “Big Sun” proves that above all, they are one hell of a rock and roll band.

And beyond that, Sympathetic Vibrations is one hell of an album.

*****

Brian Robbins folds his clothes at “www.brian-robbins.com”:http://brian-robbins.com/

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