Generally speaking, if you call something “derivative,” it’s not really a compliment. It’s usually a term used to slight TV, movies, and, yes, music, pointing to the apparent lack of originality. I’m guilty of it too, especially in the age of remakes and reboots (extending all the way through time and space to goddamn Magnum P.I. according to an unfortunate report from this past weekend). Anywho, it seems that decision makers in supposed “creative fields” find themselves going back to the well of past success over and over and over again in an attempt to bring the past into the present.
But what happens when you kind of find yourself wanting something just a teensy bit derivative? What about those times when you wished something current and of today felt more than a little like something beloved from the past? Well, that’s when you put on some music by the Band of Heathens.
See, there’s times when you don’t necessarily want to try out an album from the hot new indie artist or try to wade through endless “rock” bands in search of something that qualifies as more than passable. Sometimes you just want tunes that work, songs that can act as the musical equivalent of a well-worn sweater or a pair of old shoes. They’re well-worn because they function as they should without trying to hard to be something they’re not. That, my friends, is how I feel about this band.
The Band of Heathens have been around since 2005, putting out consistently great albums every couple of years. After a few early live albums, the band hit #1 on the Americana charts with their first two studio albums (The Band of Heathens and One Foot in the Ether), both awesome throwbacks that sound like the Black Crowes playing Rolling Stones b-sides.
Not straying too far from what brought them to the dance, the Band of Heathens released Duende earlier this year. Duende, the band’s 8th official album, is also their tightest and most anthemic. That doesn’t mean it’s focused. True to their “Americana” appointed genre, there’s something for everyone here, from country-rock to 70s AM songs to bluesy funk. Their style choices are all over the map, but this ultimately makes for a more rewarding listen.
Opener “All I’m Asking” is a bit of doo-whop masquerading as Americana, complete with background handclaps and a groveling suitor. It’s like what would happen if the Allman Brothers tried to play a 1950’s school dance.
The second track “Sugar Queen” is one of the most instantly catchy songs on the record. There’s a bouncing bass line that signals a shift to a more bluesy rock feel. Lest I leave you wondering about the “sugar queen” referenced in the title, picture a 36 year old woman who likes “Tito’s in a paper bad” and “swinging from a cage, acting half her age” and you get the picture. It’s a swampy Southern rocker worthy of jamming out to.
A strong contender for best song on the album, “Last Minute Man” is next. It’s a jangly folk rocker that wouldn’t sound out of place between The Band and the Rolling Stones on a classic rock playlist. Between the strong melody and the rollicking acoustic guitars, this is the sound of a band that is completely confident in who they are and where their wheelhouse is at.
The next song, “Deep is Love,” drives me nuts. It’s a good song at its core, but there’s this fucking whistling thing going on at the beginning (and then occasionally throughout) that creates an unwelcome earworm. Not cool, Band of Heathens. For this reason, I just skip this song rather than put up with something that invariably pisses me off EVERY SINGLE TIME.
We’re back in business, though, with “Keys to the Kingdom.” One of the more understated tracks here, “Keys” is a gorgeous (yet heartbreaking) story of a woman never quite satisfied with what she has and never quite able to get it right.
The Heathens crank it back up for one of my favorites on Duende, the rocking “Trouble Came Early.” The guitar, piano, and drum interplay here, coupled with strong lyrics, made this the easy choice for lead single. It’s a great example of this band being somewhat “derivative,” while showing that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is the kind of song that could get thrown on a jukebox in the middle of nowhere and get people moving. It’s a rock song with groove.
“Daddy Longlegs” keeps that groove going, but in a completely different way. It’s slinky, with some 70s era funk going on. It doesn’t sound like the kind of song that a group of guys that look the way the Band of Heathens do. And that’s kind of why I ended up liking these guys (and this album) so much. They take your expectations and somehow give you both something new and exactly what you want.
If there’s a song that maybe tries to hard on this record, it would be “Cracking the Code.” This is the Band of Heathens’ attempt to decry social media culture. The sentiment is good. The music is good. So what’s the problem? It might be me, but I just feel like they’re reaching in spots to make points that are self-evident. The lyrics, in spots, are a bit clunky:
Keep your profile up to date
How you feel, what’s your weight
You foolish grin, everywhere you been
Am I who I say I am
Zero’s, one’s, the tools of man
Its open source, so use the force
“Road Dust Wheels,” on the other hand, is a nice showcase that the Band of Heathens can make a statement about modern culture, while still making it sound great. This song, with an apt Tijuana rhythm, details the plight of immigrants. Here, they knock it out of the park, both lyrically and musically:
They came in boats
They came in cars
They travelled half way across the sky
Through the stars
Left their families and their homes
And their loved ones all alone
And the memory of their love lingers on
It’s a well done song that doesn’t overly sentimentalize the subject matter but treats it with the respect it deserves.
Finally, with the last song, the listener gets the song they expect from the guys in this picture:
Yep, it’s a weed song. And not a very veiled one, at that. It is titled “Green Grass of California,” after all. Fortunately, it’s actually a great song. The beachy harmonies of this song are totally Laurel Canyon-esque. Obviously, this song promotes marijuana legalization, and it does so within a truly enjoyable song, even if the lyrics get somewhat laughable at times:
Oh the green green grass of California
Pacific breeze so gentle and so kind
When your eyes are red, spinning in your head
Remember it’s only in your mind
Indeed. Oh, and the video has a lot of people smoking weed, if you’re into that kind of thing:
All told, this is the kind of album that could (and should) be playing in the background of a party, where cold beverages and munchies are being consumed in kind. Duende doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It also doesn’t need to. If anything, the Band of Heathens show that good tunes and solid musical sensibilities never go out of style. It’s an album with something for everyone, without the final product suffering. It’s good music, man. When that’s what you’re in the mood for, give Duende a spin. You won’t be disappointed.