The short version: Despite going through a lineup change, the Royal Hounds remain as technically sharp, brazenly weird, and brilliantly humorous as ever before on their newest album.
- Favorite tracks: “Herbie The Butterfly,” “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” “Tweakers From Outer Space,” “The Parthenon,” “Road Scholar”
- Least favorite track: “Whackity Do”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: If you don’t hate the concept of fun, you’ll probably like the Royal Hounds.
Granted, I’m kind of at a loss for how to introduce the Nashville-based band, especially when they’ve gone through a few lineup changes since their last album, 2016’s Poker All Night Long. But that’s also because the music speaks for itself, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense.
Led by front man Scott Hinds, the band has excelled at blending high-strung, charismatic performances with very off-the-wall subject matter (past song titles include “Elvis Is Haunting My Bathroom” and “I’m In Love With A Zombie,” for instance, and are exactly what you think they’re about). Yet what’s really set them apart and pushed them forward is their technical playing, sticking with a usual rockabilly foundation and expanding off of it through various surf, psychobilly, and other tones.
And when it comes to their newest release, Low Class Songs For High Class People, I’m tempted to just say, “they did it again, so go out and buy the damn thing,” but that’d be doing them a disservice as a critic. Still, I’m not quite sure I can review this in my usual format, if only because a band like the Royal Hounds go beyond that template.
However, a loss for words doesn’t signal a lack of interest or a dip in quality. Like I said before, the music mostly speaks for itself, and let’s be honest, explaining the jokes made here kind of sour them instead of just outright listening to them. And while the Royal Hounds do scan as one of those bands who might have an even better live show, unlike other bands in that realm, they’ve still managed to churn out not just good albums, but consistently great ones.
Part of why that is extends toward the pure quality of the band. It’s a short outfit, with only Hinds on vocals and upright bass, Matheus Canteri on guitar and Scott Billingsley on drums (who’s replaced by Nathan Place for the live show), but that doesn’t mean they limit themselves to what they have. “The Parthenon” is a strange, overblown (but in a good way) ode to Greek and Russian dancing with some legitimately eerie-sounding accordion lingering in the background, for example.
Still, if there’s one noticeable difference between this album and past projects from the band, it’s Canteri’s contribution on guitar, his first time recording an album with the band. The focus is still on the humor, but the technical playing is even sharper this time around, whether it’s the sharp stabs driving “The Walk,” the two instrumental tracks, or “Tweakers From Outer Space,” which starts as a western-inspired track with its galloping percussion before turning in a guitar solo akin to hard rock, and yet it actually kind of works well! In other words, it all feels like more of a “band” effort this time around.
But when it comes to the Royal Hounds, it’s ultimately the songs themselves that help them stick out. If you thought Tyler Childers’s “Ever Lovin’ Hand,” was the weirdest sexually oriented song you’d heard this week, well, … “Pizza Party” is a pretty close contender, and that’s all I’m going to say on that note. There’s also odes to people who can’t dance on “The Walk,” “Tweakers From Outer Space” which is about a literal incoming alien invasion, with Hinds warning listeners to grab their “percocet, your penicillin … and anything that just happens to begin with the letter, ‘p,’ ” and hey, it’s just as good as Townes Van Zandt, in my opinion.
And not to go down an easy route with this review, but really, this isn’t music one really needs to analyze; it’s one strangely enjoyable song after another. Yet if there’s any criticisms for Low Class Songs For High Class People, it’s that, with the focus on instrumental textures over lyricism this time around, it does lack the same immediate punch as past projects. “The Walk” is fine, though it’s an instance where the joke and dance music built around it aren’t quite up to par with the band’s best material. And “Whackity Do” mostly coasts on silliness over cleverness, which, yes, is an important distinction when it comes to this band.
Still, once you hit “The Parthenon,” it’s a fun ride right up until the end with their cover of “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” which even includes a snippet of a cover of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” because, screw it, why not? Hinds certainly has the charisma to carry these tunes, but it’s when he actually goes completely overboard that he’s most appealing, whether it’s on that aforementioned cover or when he’s, uh, … happy to see his significant other on “Pizza Party” (hey, the touring life is hard, people), or warning of the aliens on “Tweakers From Outer Space.”
If there’s any thematic core to this project, it’s really apparent just in their usual style – trying to make everyone laugh in the best way they can or, on the other hand, giving the spotlight to people usually dubbed as losers. The people who don’t know how to dance get their chance to shine on “The Walk,” meanwhile “Road Scholar” goes beyond that obvious corny pun to actually deliver a sincere portrait of a truck driver who found his education a different way – driving all over the United States and earning cooler opportunities to see the world than most people get.
On the note of “Road Scholar,” there’s also songs about life on the road, with “Herbie The Butterfly” being the absolute home run of this project. It’s a eulogy for a dead butterfly that flew into their windshield one day, to which they responded by keeping him there to enjoy the rest of the tour. I’d call it sick if it wasn’t so damn brilliant in its execution, and despite this track lasting nearly four minutes, it feels like it could last four more and not run dry.
And with the Royal Hounds, sometimes it’s the little details that matter, too. After all, these are performers who are strange and embrace the macabre – of course there’s more here than what meets the eye. Their instrumentals are usually fun and never detract from the album listening experience, but something like “Pororoca” takes on a new meaning when you realize it’s a tribute to Canteri’s homeland, just in a naturally odd sense. The term actually refers to an annual phenomenon on the Amazon River where a giant wave makes it way down, resulting in people trying to ride that wave. It explains why the surf tones on that track are a nice touch.
And there you have it, folks. If songs about aliens, Chinese buffets, dead butterflies, or a truck driver who found a different kind of salvation interest you, then this album is for you. In all seriousness, the Royal Hounds’ eccentric attitude won’t be for everyone, especially on first listen. But I’d also argue that, if you’re only focusing on their strange subject matter, you’re also missing out on the great technical playing, which is really the foundation of this album. But on that note, it’s a testament to their skills as performers that they’ve managed to keep up their consistency with their studio work, turning in another project that’s a blast to listen to and easy to enjoy.