Album Review: The Steel Woods – ‘Old News’

Old News cover

The short version: The Steel Woods’ sophomore effort is somehow even better than their debut album. It’s a striking concept record filled with great stories, fantastic riffs and some of their stickiest hooks yet. In short, it’s an early contender for one of 2019’s best albums.

  • Favorite tracks: “Rock That Says My Name,” “Without You,” “Southern Accents,” “Anna Lee,” “All Of These Years,” “Changes,” “Wherever You Are,” “Blind Lover,” “Red River (The Fall Of Jimmy Sutherland)”
  • Least favorite track: “Old News”
  • Rating: 9/10

The long version: Blackberry Smoke and Whiskey Myers have dominated and revitalized he southern-rock throne over the past two decades. If Old News by the Steel Woods doesn’t put them alongside them at the top of that pedestal, there’s something seriously wrong.

The Steel Woods bust out of the gate with their 2017 debut album, Straw In The Wind, a monster of an album that took a Southern Gothic approach to its style and presentation. Since then, it’s fitting that they’ve toured with similar artists over the years including Miranda Lambert, Cody Jinks, Jamey Johnson and of course, the aforementioned Blackberry Smoke.

For as excellent as that album was though, their new effort, Old News just may be better. It’s another excellent album that shows them expanding their style while still keeping the roots of what’s great about them. The riffs are catchier and nastier, the songwriting is better, and the hooks are sure to be some of the most delicious ones of the year. In short, this is the kind of album that will quickly have the band entering big league conversations in music, or at least it should.

The stunning part of it all is that there are points where I just don’t know how they pulled it off. Their stab at retro-leaning soul on “Changes” somehow works surprisingly well and is an impressive vocal moment from lead singer, Wes Bayliss.

That’s a note to be made on the entire album though. It explores multiple avenues from southern-rock to soul, funk and even classic country, and yet not only does it all come together, the band often performs the style better than most artists currently out there.

On another note, it’s an album that shows the band bringing together their best elements to form a near-masterpiece. Bayliss’ howling, rougher voice is reminiscent in a way of Kip Moore – he’s not a necessarily smooth singer, but that growl to his voice makes him an incredible, booming presence behind the microphone. Most of the songs are drawn out without feeling that way, allowing guitarist Jason Cope to really shred. The swampier bass courtesy of Johnny Stanton makes for some nastier, sinister sounding moments such as the instrumental interlude, “Red River (The Fall Of Jimmy Sutherland),” a song that should really be played before each concert. It’s also worth noting that this track is the ominous aftermath of “Della Jane’s Heart” off Straw In The Wind, and “Anna Lee” is the precursor to the track. When you think about them in that context, “Red River” becomes more than just an instrumental. Jay Tooke’s contributions on drums only serve to bolster the killer grooves on this project.

More than that though, it’s the little details that really make Old News a treat for the ears – the skittering minor riffs of “Without You,” the crunchy, fun riff of “All Of These Years,” the gothic, rootsy fiddle solo of “Wherever You Are” that comes just at the right moment, the pure blues-rock funk of tracks like “Blind Lover” and “Compared To A Soul” – you get the point, but at fifteen tracks there’s barely any filler on this album.

In fact, the closest criticism I can muster for this album is the song, “Old News,” a track that tries to bridge the political divide but unfortunately lacks the nuance to pull it off, even if it sounds excellent. It feels a few years too late with its message, as many of the problems now are problems where talking it out just won’t get the job done. Moreover though, “let’s hash it out until we’re red, white and blue” is a fairly bad line.

Really though, that’s where the criticisms start and end, because the other elements (as if you couldn’t tell by now) are fantastic.

To top it off though, for southern-rock, the writing is very strong. In a sub-genre where the lyrical tropes can pander to southern clichés or simply focus more on riffs and grooves, the Steel Woods provide a nice template for an album that explores the concept of what a legacy truly means. If there was one criticism to be had for their debut album, it’s that the writing could be vague and scattershot at times without any real payoff.

Here, the writing is more straightforward and cohesive as a whole as far as a thematic arc is concerned. The album is meant to read as a newspaper, with the final four tracks acting as obituaries for four fallen legends – Wayne Mills, Merle Haggard, Gregg Allman and Tom Petty (in that order). Old News therefore finds the band not only doing their best to honor their fallen heroes, but also hone their own legacy so that bands one day will honor them.

The writing also pulls no punches in what it’s trying to get across. “Without You” is a hard conversation among friends where the other friend plainly tells him to put the bottle down and move on, at least until the final verse reveals that the man was talking to himself all along.

And whether it’s making a better life for yourself or for someone else, Old News looks to the future by making a better today. Whether it’s escaping constant boredom in “Anna Lee” or finding fleeting, temporary solace in “Blind Lover,” Old News never really claims to have all of the answers. “All Of These Years” is a constant struggle between hanging onto youth and knowing you have to grow up at some point.

That’s what Old News feels most like – a journey. Sure, the attention to detailed stories courtesy of “Compared To A Soul,” “Without You,” “Old News” and “Anna Lee” bolsters the concept of the newspaper feel they were going for, but it also feels like a journey from youth to that inevitable ending. It’s unstable and wild at the beginning, but by the end, there’s a solace to be found in what comes after.

“Catfish Song” comes with the realization that one day, all we’ll have at the end of the ride is the memories we made along the way. From straightening himself out on “Without You,” finding comfort in the death of a loved one on “Wherever You Are,” or finding “the one” on “Anna Lee,” some of the narrators find their answers and their peace. Other times, the conflicts don’t resolve like on “Compared To A Soul” and “Old News,” and that provides a realness to the project, as not everyone will find what they’re looking for by the end, unfortunate as that may be.

But then it all caps off with the brilliant, “Rock That Says My Name,” where the narrator can look back and be proud of what he’s accomplished without being afraid of what’s next. Another part of him will live on.

And how fitting is it that their legacy centers around music? The final four tracks, covers of past legends, almost make too much sense for the band to cover. Yet just like their stab at soul on “Changes,” the band also handles classic country well. Their covers of Wayne Mills’ “One Of These Days” and Merle Haggard’s “Are The Good Times Really Over … ” showcase pedal steel with a ton of texture and an anguished feel, as if they’re just playing these among friends in a studio somewhere. The cover of the Haggard song is obviously dated now, but it still serves to bolster the thematic arc and struggle of wanting to be older but still looking back on the past with rose-colored glasses.

It’s the Tom Petty cover of “Southern Accents” though that finds the band doing more than simply paying tribute to their heroes. It might sound cliché to say a band “makes a cover their own,” but if it was ever true, it’s here. Not only does Bayliss give it his all vocally, but when those burnished, anguished guitars kick in, it provides an anthemic swell to the track that’s only too perfect of a way to end the album.

If you couldn’t tell by now, The Steel Woods’ Old News is an absolute behemoth of an album. It’s a southern-rock odyssey that finds the band in top form and better than before. The songs are stretched-out, and the project itself is quite long, yet it never feels that way. The hooks are too damn excellent for it not to hold your attention. If the band continues making albums like this, there won’t be any need to worry whether or not bands will pay tribute to the Steel Woods one day.

(Light to decent 9/10)

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