You know, given that halted plans and uncertainties and fears caused by the pandemic have informed the background context behind the bulk of the reviews I’ve written this year, it’d be fair to expect any further complications on top of that to lead to a disaster. And indeed, in the wake of the Bloodshot Records fallout that not every artist has recovered from, I’ve certainly heard a weaker comeback effort or two …
… but I don’t know, call it the result of all that unbridled, pent-up frustration and energy shining through on a project packed to the brim with strong melodic hooks, but alt-country-punk outfit Vandoliers might have just made their best project to date with their self-titled effort – the long-awaited crossing of a finish line that could have read as a glorious swan song but instead feels like a new beginning.
Granted, one could also argue that they did it by sacrificing some of the rough-edged, hardscrabble punch in some of their more punk-infused moments in favor of a more polished sheen. But if anything, while lead vocalist Joshua Fleming’s delivery will always be an acquired taste, he sounds less fried and more rejuvenated, and in keeping the band’s melodic focus intact and stronger than ever with some of their most immediate material, they just may have made their most accessible project yet (and, contrary to popular belief, that’s not a bad thing at all).
And even in the wake of burnout and an uncertain future, there’s so much desperate adrenaline fueling this project, that it’s hard to turn away or ignore. Granted, one could argue that that’s all within this band’s wheelhouse anyway, and I do wish certain tracks punched a bit harder and that the desperation and angst wasn’t confined to an arc of mostly relationship-fueled songs. But knowing the context, it can’t help but add fuel to the fire: “Every Saturday Night” is from last year and is squarely centered around the pandemic, but still speaks to their own dire situation to ring loud even beyond that. And with shit-eating grins and a wink in their step, they manage to turn misfortune around several times here, most notably on “I Hope Your Heartache’s a Hit” and “Bless Your Drunken Heart,” and with more desperate urgency on “Before the Fall.”
And with their hard-charged electric axes and spiky fiddle lines bolstering their arsenal – along with those blasts of harmonica along the way for good measure – the actual music is pretty compelling and hopeful, too: the turned-up distortion fittingly drowns out everything to get lost in the noise on “Every Saturday Night” and still just may be my favorite track here for its soaring drive and heart; and the faster-paced gallop certainly adds an adventurous rush and drive to the fun-as-hell “Bless Your Drunken Heart,” and a darker subtext to “Better Run,” even if that track somewhat coasts on cheesier outlaw clichés.
Yeah, if anything, my few criticisms for the project probably do come through in the writing. Don’t get me wrong, for what is ostensibly a soul-searching album where hope is found in earnest and not taken for granted like before, it’s a blast all the way through with no outright missteps. And I do appreciate that the band owns up to any personal missteps in the content proper and finds its best way forward, like the relapse-centered “Down and Out,” or the drive to get back to playing live music on “Every Saturday Night.” But in mostly sketching the arc of the fall and inevitable redemption through breakup songs, it can start to feel a bit one-note after a while and repeat itself; “Too Drunk to Drink” just felt a bit too jokey and breezy to impact me much, and “Wise County Friday Night” felt like an odd note to end the project when the hard-charged swagger of “I Hope Your Heartache’s a Hit” seemed more fitting. And I do think it’s missing maybe another emotional anchor point like “Cigarettes in the Rain” from their last album, even if “Before the Fall” works as that and is damn excellent on its own.
But really, for a straightforward listen filled with highs, lows and everything in between, this is arguably the band’s most consistent and highly enjoyable album to date – as well as an easy jumping-on point. It’s weary and melancholic in spirit … and yet they still managed to overload it with their most immediate hooks to date, where if they’re going to dance with the devil, they figure they might as well go with a good waltz or shuffle – make those heartaches hits indeed. It’s a blast, it’s frantic, and it’s brimming with hope in spite of it all.
- Favorite tracks: “The Lighthouse,” “Every Saturday Night,” “Howlin’,” “Bless Your Drunken Heart,” “Down and Out,” “Steer Me Wrong,” “Before the Fall,” “I Hope Your Heartache’s a Hit”
- Least favorite track: “Too Drunk to Drink”