Just because something is real country, doesn’t mean it is real good. This came into sharp focus for Saving Country Music in the aftermath of Blake Shelton’s “Old Farts and Jackasses” comments when the SCM headquarters got smattered by a carpet bombing of “real” country album submissions looking for coverage. The problem is steel guitar, fiddle, and waltz beats can’t make up for conspicuous clichè. Making unimaginative “classic” country albums that rely on the same old tired modes and worn out rhymes about whiskey shots and smokey old bars is not the way to battle Blake Shelton and his ilk, it fuels their flames.
Furthermore, a good handful of the albums in the post-Blake carpet bombing were beset with bad timing issues. Lo-fi recordings or live offerings are one thing, but when you sit down to make a slick studio album, you better damn well pull it off, because nothing speedbumps a song like when the rhythm is out of whack, wobbling back and forth like your 9-year-old’s front tire on the first cruise without training wheels.
This is one of the issues plaguing The Highballers offering Soft Music and Hard Liquor, but where they break from the herd is with their songs and arrangements. A good song can drown all other concerns, and The Highballers deliver one after another on this somewhat quirky but really enjoyable anf fun album. Originating from the unlikely country music locale of Washington DC, The Higballers revive the classic country rock feel in songs that display wit, humor, and at times, heartfelt storytelling, backed by some great country licks and adept composition.
The super fun song “Doing Time In Pennsylvania” sends you back to the heart of Byrds-era California country rock with all the great little nuances that made Monkees tunes so damn infectious without any of the inauthentic baggage. “A Cowgirl Who Understands” is where Highballers singer and songwriter Kendall Jackson first exposes his funny bone, doing justice to the long lineage of cross-dressing country songs over the years. The entirety of Soft Music and Hard Liquor is laden with luscious harmony vocals, but on “Live To Let You Down” vocalist Victoria Patchen is really allowed to spread her wings and offers a super-duper performance that lets you feel the soul of the story and announces her as a vocal powerhouse.
As stereotype as “I Didn’t Mean To Get Drunk” and “I Take Pride In My Drinkin'” might look on paper, they jump off this record as songs that immediately suck you in. “Virginia” is the album’s little hidden gem, with superbly-arranged harmonies, and where lead guitarist Sean Lally–who plays some really mean licks on this album and has a great ear for the songs–just steps back and strums to really bring out the melodic nature of the song. “The Price You Pay” evokes the lonesome space of a classic Western, again driven by really good vocal harmonies and some of the best songwriting on the album.
This is not what I would call a “slick” project. The little rhythm gremlins here and there are at times noticeable to the common ear, but I really hope that doesn’t keep people from enjoying this album and its big honking badass stable of thoroughbred country songs.
Think that good, classic country music can’t originate from inside the Beltway? Well listen to The Highballers’ Soft Music and Hard Liquor and prove yourself wrong.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up
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