Quick Draw Album Reviews: A Scum Country World

The short version: In the eight edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I review the latest projects from Hill Country, Hellbound Glory, Sarah Jarosz and John Baumann.

Hill Country, Hill Country

  • Favorite tracks: “Company Man,” “Dixie Darlin,” “Janie Lynn,” “Palomino Gold,” “Hey Susanna”
  • Least favorite track: “Work To Do”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Hellbound Glory, Pure Scum

  • Favorite tracks: “Damned Angel,” “Neon Leon,” “Dial 911,” “Someone To Use,” “DUIORDIE”
  • Least favorite track: “Loose Slots”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Sarah Jarosz, World On The Ground

  • Favorite tracks: “Little Satchel,” “Johnny,” “Hometown,” “I’ll Be Gone”
  • Least favorite track: “Pay It No Mind”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

John Baumann, Country Shade

  • Favorite tracks: “Flight Anxiety,” “I Don’t Know,” “Homesick For The Heartland”
  • Least favorite track: “Sunday Morning Coming Up”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The full version:

Hill Country, Hill Country

I can’t say this is a pivot I expected from Texas singer/songwriter Zane Williams, who, after releasing his own string of albums, has decided to team up with singer/songwriter Paul Eason, Lyndon Hughes, Sean Rodriguez and Andy Rogers for something of a mini-supergroup with Hill Country. Then again, it seems like it caught most fans and critics off-guard, and, based off the initial reception the band’s self-titled debut album collected, in a good way, too. The prospects certainly sound interesting, but I’ll be frank and say I’ve always been left underwhelmed by Williams’ solo material.

Hill Country, however, is playing to slightly different territory. It’s still a decidedly Texas-flavored project, but with elements of folk and bluegrass thrown in and a distinct jam band feel as well. With this album, it’s the melodies, hooks and grooves that stand out most, like the smokier, minor textures of “Palomino Gold,” the hard-charged fiddle driving “Janie Lynn” and the rollicking interplay between the electric guitar and handclaps of “Hey Susanna.” But it’s also a track like “Janie Lynn” that reminds me – hand this to Shane Smith & The Saints and it’d have a ton more heft in its presentation and delivery, which is both a feature and flaw of this album. On one hand, it’s mostly meant to be musical comfort food, and the most appropriate comparison I’ve seen made for this album is that it’s like a Texas-flavored take on the Eagles. And I can’t deny it’s a loose, easy-going project that’s pleasant to listen to and still leaves some lasting impact when it’s done.

On the other hand, Williams isn’t the most powerful or distinctive singer, thus rendering this music feeling a bit too familiar and safe at points, too. There’s some great moments, for sure, but I also get the feeling the band could double down on their best elements for an even tighter project. I love the band interplay on the bridge of “Company Man,” for instance, but we don’t really get that rollicking camaraderie elsewhere, minus the mimicking of the hook on “Hey Susanna.”

With Williams, though, it’s usually the lyrics and themes where I’m least impressed, but even with the added focus on literally every other element of this project, the stories told mostly connect. Sure, there’s a clumsy working man anthem in “Work To Do” (that’s pulled off much more effectively on “Company Man”), and the disconnected stories told on “Somewhere Down The Road” don’t give it the lyrical muscle it needs to drive the point home; but it’s all countered with tales of drifters and seedier characters never quite feeling satisfied with their current situation. Sometimes it gives the album an old-fashioned spin, like on the outlaw-centered “Janie Lynn,” but other times there’s real heartfelt emotion to the stories. The man in “Dixie Darlin,” for instance, thinks the titular character has returned home for good after a wild escapade, only for him to realize she’s just passing through for a moment, and he’s left heartbroken again. All-in-all, it might just be shy of being a great listen, but there’s a lot of potential here. Now I want to see them push their best elements a bit further … and to develop a more unique band name. (Decent 7/10)

Hellbound Glory, Pure Scum

I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to discuss a new Hellbound Glory album.

That’s a two-pronged statement: inspired, in part, by front man Leroy Virgil’s hardcore lifestyle that, at least according to the band’s first few albums, showed him following along the same path that icons like Hank Williams and George Jones traveled, which can cause a genuine worry for someone beyond just what’s portrayed in the actual art. There’s also the fact, however, that this band is a reminder of another point in time – not just a callback to the classic country icons they idolize, but one of the last living reminders of the underground country movement from a decade ago (which I’ve discussed before).

Plus, they weren’t the most prolific band in the 2010s, and I can’t say Pinball stood among their best work, either. It’s also hard what to make of Pure Scum – a tribute to Reno, Nevada (which has inspired most Hellbound Glory songs) and a production collaboration with Shooter Jennings, where Jennings’ backing band is the technical Hellbound Glory band for this record. At any rate, if you’re looking for an introduction to the band, I wouldn’t start here; but I would call it a slight return to form that, speaking as a fan, couldn’t have come at a better time.

Like with Jaime Wyatt’s Neon Cross, though, I’m not always won over by Jennings’ production like I have been with other albums he’s produced this year. A band like Hellbound Glory (even if it’s basically just Virgil by now) requires a greater heft to their work, and while “DUIORDIE” is the only track I’d describe as “old” Hellbound Glory, it doesn’t quite have the production muscle to match the content. On the other hand, with the languid reverb supplementing the low end of the mix at some points, there’s a distinct ‘80s feel to the presentation, which can work for giving off that feeling of songs emanating from some smoky dive bar; this is the quintessential honky-tonk band, after all. And that plays both ways: “Neon Leon” sounds it was built for the liveliest nights on that stage while the darker surf swells surrounding “Damned Angel” are for the loneliest nights.

As for the songwriting, it’s hard to say Virgil has lost his spark when “Dial 911” appears here – a plead from a man to his lover who just shot him to dial 911, and in the most nonchalant way, naturally. At the same time, a lot has changed since the band’s earliest days, and the tales of sordid affairs don’t quite stand out like they used to. Of course, given how, again, that says more about the artist behind the microphone than it does about the art itself, it’s good to not dwell in that darkness. But “Hank Williams Lifestyle” isn’t even their best song about Hank Williams, and there’s other spots like “Loose Slots” and “Renowhere” that feel clumsy and serve only to support that loose theme of Reno inspiration. As a whole, though, longtime fans are already calling this their favorite album of the year, and while I wouldn’t even personally call it the best Hellbound Glory album … yeah, it’s still good hearing from Virgil again. (Light 7/10)

Sarah Jarosz, World On The Ground

It sounds weird to say it, but Sarah Jarosz has earned the right to slow things down a bit. A weird statement for an artist only in her late 20s, but Jarosz, in addition to entering the Americana scene at a young age, has also balanced her solo career with her role as a member in the folk power trio I’m With Her. It’s no surprise, then, that Jarosz looked inward for her newest studio album, World On The Ground, inspired by her central Texas upbringing and first with producer John Leventhal.

It’s a quietly wistful project, but also one that sounds weathered and burnished, enough to where it sounds a bit too conventional for this brand of Americana. It helps that it’s all still melodically intricate and entrancing in spots, but it’s one of two albums in this roundup where I wish there was a greater variety in tempo and a heftier sonic palette. But there’s always a strong sense of atmosphere to Jarosz’s projects, where she’s at the front of the mix and, in addition to being a great singer, acts as more of a storyteller for this album.

In keeping true to the theme of finding one’s place through their upbringing, too, World On The Ground is wonderfully layered by showing multiple facets of that journey. And while every track is meant to be a self-contained journey, there’s a natural progression to the decisions made. The titular character on “Eve” is forced to make the most of her situation in a dead-end town, and “Hometown” finds a character who left their home to see the world, only to find themselves back in that town ending as they began. Jarosz has always been adept at shading in the details of her stories, and here, it’s fitting that there’s no real resolution to that story – they may find themselves by sorting through those old memories, or they may take off and try again. It’s what drives later tracks, too, like how the titular characters in “Johnny” and “Maggie” find themselves by breaking free and hitting the road. There’s also some songs – “Eve,” “Orange and Blue,” and “Empty Square” that are a bit on-the-nose and mainly serve the album theme rather than stand as good individual tracks, and in satisfying this album’s underlying question of “who am I?,” “Pay It No Mind” is the only track to address it head-on with generic life advice. I’ll admit, too, that my favorite track may be the old-time bluegrass tune “Little Satchel,” which is an odd way to close the album, but also finds Jarosz reconnecting with her bluegrass roots, which may also be a roundabout way of connecting with the album’s theme, now that I think about it. As a whole, I wouldn’t call it among Jarosz’s best work, but it’s thoughtful, as always. (Light 7/10)

John Baumann, Country Shade

They may never release these songs as singles, but it’s heartening to know when mainstream country artists recognize good songs, especially from underground talent. You may or may not have heard John Baumann’s name from his self-penned “Gulf Moon” appearing on Kenny Chesney’s 2018 album Songs For The Saints, but he’s racked up an impressive discography already. Just this year he joined forces with Josh Abbott, William Clark Green and Cleto Cordero for the pretty solid Panhandlers project, and whereas that project found him balancing quirky, off-kilter writing with serious odes to the Texas Panhandle, on new album Country Shade, his writing is more heartfelt and self-reflective.

Granted, it fits the general mood of the year, and while Baumann isn’t a particularly great singer, he’s throwing himself into this material. It’s heady, and there’s real wisdom in Baumann’s approach. Where the album stumbles, though, is the execution, where producer Justin Pollard lends a burnished texture to this record. It works for the material, but it’s also a quieter, stuffier style that, unfortunately, feels all too familiar to other independent country projects in this vein, and it’s another instance of me wishing for a greater variety of tempo and sonic palette to match the depth of Baumann’s lyrics. Granted, there are moments that slip away from the norm, for better and worse: “Flight Anxiety” sticks out like a sore thumb here, but I love the old-school piano and rockabilly groove driving this anxiety attack. “Sunday Morning Coming Up,” on the other hand, is a looser restyling of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that feels clunky and clumsy, if only because Baumann isn’t convincing as a hell-raiser. And while “Grandfather’s Grandson” is one of the better tracks here, that extended guitar outro really kills the entire mood and ends the album on a sour note.

This, of course, is usually the part where I step in to say the songwriting saves this album … and truthfully, it’s also a bit clumsy in places. What this album sounds like, ultimately, is a young man reflecting on where he is now, taking stock of lessons learned and pondering how to best move forward, all while ruminating on his childhood days, too. And on “I Don’t Know,” that general helplessness in the wake of a young friend’s death and subsequent confusion over faith is an understandable reaction to it all, and there’s a mature undercurrent to the execution of “If You Really Love Someone.” But there’s also moments like “Daylights Burning” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” that scan as too overwrought and heavy-handed. “Next Ride Around The Sun” boils down to generic life advice and to make the most of the time left, but the song tries too hard to force that connection with the “you should do this/that” lead instead of letting it come more naturally. “Fool’s Crusade” truly does paint a picture of a desperate fool, but a line like, “if you didn’t love me, I wouldn’t care,” makes me a bit concerned that he’s still trying to stalk win this woman over. It’s mostly material built on Hallmark sentiments, and when the only solution is to think about the “good ol’ days” on a track like “The Country Doesn’t Sound The Same,” Country Shade shows good intentions without ever being all that interesting. Again, there’s some heart to the intent and focus, and I love the mind-warp of “Flight Anxiety,” but it’s a strangely isolated moment on an otherwise boring album. (Light 6/10)

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