In some ways, I should hate Hellbound Glory and their new album, Old Highs and New Lows. I’ve been on the warpath lately against artists and bands who think being REAL country means shoehorning as many drug and whiskey references as possible into your songs. And though there’s not a track on this album that doesn’t mention drugs or drinking, this album is pure gold. It rises way above the fray with the sheer quality of the music and songwriting.
Leroy Virgil, frontman, singer, and songwriter for the band must be a tireless student of country music. His use of lyric is superb. He turns a phrase as good or better than any songwriter in the underground, or mainstream today. The way he constructs his songs is purely in the tradition of country music, but as fresh and relevant as anything else you will hear. With his use of key changes at the end of songs and modulation in others, you can tell Leroy has done his homework of how to engage the human spirit in song, and then drive it home at the end. He doesn’t ape the styles of Johnny Cash and Johnny Paycheck, he learns from them and builds on their legacies.
This is not neo-traditional country. There’s no Cookie Monster lyrics or other “Hellbilly” antics. It is high energy, but not crunchy enough to call it cowpunk. This is pure 100% Cooder Graw Dusty Bumpkins country; the way country would be if it’s evolution hadn’t been stymied by pop.
The songs are about drinking, and drugs (pills especially), and the heartache that stimulates such self destructive behaviors. I never knew you could rhyme so many words with Oxycontin.
Every great album has a run of songs somewhere in the track list that keeps you engaged throughout and keeps you creeping that volume knob to the right. This album starts off with that run. “Another Bender Might Break Me,” is the mid tempo ball buster ballad, “Gettin’ High and Hittin’ New Lows” is the fast, superpicker song, and “Be My Crutch,” is the slow tearjerker. “Be My Crutch” might end up as my Song of the Year for 2010. It is so pure, so well written and spot on it’s sick. Every great album also has that one song you can’t wear out no matter how many times you punch it up, and that is “Be My Crutch.”
The next song “One Way Tack Marks” is a Johnny Cash-esque song about a heroin addict, that modulates the cords as it progresses. The album is so well arranged, so patient and thought out. If a pedal steel is called for, or maybe a banjo, it is added to the track, in the right place, and not overused.
The songs “Either Way We’re Fucked” and “Why Take The Pain” highlight Leroy Virgil’s skill at turning phrases back on themselves, an old country trick. Again, this is a trick some country artists have employed in such a repetitive way it drives me crazy, but Leroy does it with such tact and taste that it works well. When it doesn’t work, it just seems like a clever trick. But the way Leroy does it, it helps convey the inherent dichotomies of the human condition that make country music such a strong sedative for the pains in life.
As I started to get deeper in the track list with songs like “Slow Suicide,” “In the Gutter Again,” and “Too Broke To Overdose,” I was starting to get a little jaded with the onslaught of drinking and drug references, but I’ll be damned that as each song progressed, something about the song structure or the way Leroy Virgil turned a phrase would suck me right back in. I do think that Hellbound Glory would benefit from trying to work in some songs about different themes, at least to clear the pallet, but the singular focus of their lyrics in this album does not hold any individual song back.
“Too Broke To Overdose” is a bona fide hit, though it does use a pretty common walk up technique to bridge the song together. The problem with some of these songs is that because of the subject matter, Hellbound Glory is limiting the audience. I wouldn’t go telling them to get away from what they do best, I know that their whole thing is being the “scumbags of country,” but Leroy Virgil is such a great songwriter, I would like to see him try his hand with some songs that a wider audience could get behind. Though I’m sure Leroy cares little about what anybody thinks, and that fearlessness is why he’s such a great songwriter.
The album ends with a great, up-tempo cover of Hiram Hank’s “I’m Leaving Now (Long Gone Daddy).” This is the second Williams-related song on the album, with “Hank Williams Records,” probably being my least favorite track on the album.
I know I’ve gone long here, but I really can’t say enough about this album. They say that you have your whole life to write your first album, and that is why I think sophomore performances are the most important for a band. Their first release Scumbag Country showed promise, but Old Highs & New Lows shows that they are an elite country band that deserves the highest amount of attention and recognition. Hopefully Hellbound Glory is bound for more than just hell, because they deserve to be.
Hellbound Glory is on Gearhead Records.
Download the album and/or preview tracks from Gearhead by clicking here.
Buy the CD from Amazon by clicking here.