Quick Draw Album Reviews: Lo-Fi Instrumental High

The short version: In the second edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I take a look at new albums from Hawktail, Tré Burt, the Lil’ Smokies and the Cadillac Three.

Hawktail, Formations

  • Favorite tracks: “Eddie’s Attic,” “The Tobogganist,” “One Night In Hungary,” “Last One On The Line”
  • Least favorite track: “Annbjørg”
  • Buy or stream the album.

Tré Burt, Caught It From The Rye

  • Favorite tracks: “Real You,” “Moth’s Crossing,” “Last Hurrah,” “What Good,” “Undead God Of War”
  • Least favorite track: “Franklin’s Tunnel (feat. Sea Of Bees)”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album.

The Lil’ Smokies, Tornillo

  • Favorite tracks: “Carry Me,” “Blood Money,” “Wheel On The Water”
  • Least favorite track: “True Blues”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album.

The Cadillac Three, COUNTRY FUZZ

  • Favorite tracks: “Blue El Camino,” “Bar ‘Round Here,” “The Jam”
  • Least favorite track: “All The Makin’s Of A Saturday Night”
  • Rating: 4/10
  • Buy or stream the album.

The full version:

Hawktail, Formations

To start off today’s docket, we have the sophomore album from progressive bluegrass quartet, Hawktail, Formations. Truthfully, I’m not sure how much I’ll ultimately have to say, given that this is strictly an instrumental album, but it’s a great listen for what it is. Considering there’s seven songs all floating around the five-minute mark, the greatest asset to the album’s creativity is how the band keeps the songs interesting and dynamic, including balancing out their instrumentation and melodic progressions and handling the transitions well. Plus, I’m a sucker for Swedish and Irish melodies. Again, though, balance is the key; “The Tobogannist” and “One Night In Hungary” might both start with fairly simple melodies (guitar for the former and violin for the latter), but they trade that melody off to every single instrument, including the fiddle, courtesy of Brittany Haas, and mandolin, courtesy of Dominic Leslie. And whereas the former track is just aiming for something sunnier and upbeat off the heavier “Dandelion,” the latter is a fantastic closing track that gains a surprising amount of presence as it moves forward. Of course, the moments that aim for low-key stakes are also great; “Dandelion” is one of the weaker cuts, but bassist Paul Kowert does add a quiet grace to the track before that crescendo hits, and the minor interplay between Jordan Tice’s guitar playing and fiddle on “Eddie’s Attic” may provide my favorite moment on the album. Again, it’s not the easiest traditional listening experience, but Formations is an instrumental project where everything clicks together nicely.

Tré Burt, Caught It From The Rye

Like with Hawktail, I’m at a loss for words for an introduction here, mostly because this album is a reissue from two years ago. Then again, given the style, it’s easy to see why John Prine’s Oh Boy! Records picked up on this, even if that style also draws the obvious comparisons to ’60s folk, particularly Bob Dylan. But as for Sacramento-based folk artist Tré Burt, he self-released Caught It From The Rye after a fairly brutal journey from busking on the street to finally finding his aforementioned label home. And his debut album is a good start, though I’d emphasize “start,” more than anything – it’s lo-fi, low-key and a bit rough around the edges, and with only nine songs stretching for a run-time under 30 minutes, it’s a good listen, but I’m more excited to hear where Burt goes from here.

But while it’s a sparse listen, Burt’s melodic sensibilities are fantastic, the best example being the dream-like atmosphere of “Moth’s Crossing”; and “Real You” proves he can write a hook, too. Plus, when the instrumentation does take precedence, it’s usually for the better; the harmonica cuts through with a sharpness on “Undead God Of War” and “Last Hurrah,” and the jangled groove of “Real You” is another excellent moment. I’m not as wild, however, about the title track, which feels a key too low, or the underweight “Get It By Now Blues”; and Burt’s harmonies with Sea Of Bees on “Franklin’s Tunnel” are pretty messy overall. Burt’s main appeal, though, comes through in his writing, which is a particularly dour listen, all things considered. I’d call tracks like “What Good” and “Only Sorrow Remains” borderline nihilistic, but it’s more about facing the darkness head-on and finding that drive and passion out of the rubble. Sometimes the scope is larger, like how Burt watches friends get unfairly treated by the justice system due to their skin color on “Undead God Of War,” and sometimes that frustration boils down to something simpler, like how he’s tired of watching his significant other try to be something she’s not on “Real You.” It all ends, however, on a positive note with “Last Hurrah,” where the ultimate message is to try and find your own place in the world. (Light 7/10)

The Lil’ Smokies, Tornillo

We’re back to talking about progressive bluegrass with the Lil’ Smokies, a Montana-based band that just released Tornillo, their third album. Sonically, they remind me of the Infamous Stringdusters, particularly in their huge melodies with swells of atmosphere that lead into even bigger grooves. And I like how many of these compositions are playing to minor territory, though I do wish they took more chances, as it can start to blur together after awhile. Sure, there’s some attempts to break the formula by adding in synth tones on “World’s On Fire” and “Blood Money,” but they’re not really doing anything dynamic or interesting within the tracks. The album does, however, hit its stride toward the end with “Blood Money,” which plays to a faster, seedier tempo and is one of the more adventurous performances here. And there are some great melodies here, and the band knows how to add some underlying tension and play to huge emotions with those ascending grooves, particularly on “Carry Me” and “Wheel On The Water.” The foundation is good, but truthfully, none of the singers really have the dynamic range to carry this sort of material, and when it’s mostly built off melody and groove, that’s important. But they know how to compliment their lyricism with their heightened dramatic stakes in the compositions, with the main theme being, well … “making it” as a band, from chasing dreams on opener “Fortunes” to showing how that life can cause strains in a relationship on “World’s On Fire.” Again, the foundation is solid, but Tornillo doesn’t really take the chances needed to ascend just a bit higher. (Decent 6/10)

The Cadillac Three, COUNTRY FUZZ

Thus far, southern-rock outfit The Cadillac Three have found themselves in a weird mold. They don’t have the critical acclaim of, say, Blackberry Smoke or Whiskey Myers, but they do have major label support. The problem is that mainstream country radio hasn’t taken kindly to them either, leaving their projects thus far feeling like weird compromises that don’t flatter either audience. And maybe they’ve realized that, because while COUNTRY FUZZ isn’t what I’d call good, it’s an overall improvement for the band. But it’s only an improvement to a certain extent; for as much as front man Jaren Johnston knows how to work in a killer guitar groove with real stomp and muscle behind it on “Bar ‘Round Here,” “The Jam” or “Blue El Camino,” it’s balanced out with the heavy, unflattering reverb-saturated production of “Labels,” “Raise Hell,” or “Slow Rollin’” (among others, sadly) that tries to go for swagger and ends up feeling like murky blobs of noise. Sadly, that reverb-saturation extends toward the vocal production, and Johnston isn’t a great singer anyway, but when he’s pushed to his lower range on “Heat,” “Slow Rollin’” or “All The Makin’s Of A Saturday Night” to evoke a growl, he ends up sounding washed-out instead. Granted, this is the kind of purposefully meat-headed southern-rock that would play best live, but there’s a difference between writing fun party songs and tracks that are just plain stupid, like “Hard Out Here For A Country Boy” or the stoner anthem “Whiskey And Smoke.” And it doesn’t help that the album contains 16 tracks, most of which could be cut due to a lack of variety. There’s definitely a lane for this sort of primal southern-rock where the thinking stops, but even with that in mind, there’s still better options than this. (Strong 4/10)

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