Like newly anointed believers stumbling out of an especially raucous tent revival ready to proselytize the Gospel to the world, or the devotees of some swami who believe they’ve discovered all the answers to eternal happiness and want to share it with everyone, the souls who’ve spent time in the audience of The Red Clay Strays are sure to testify to the sheer transformational force these fellas from south Alabama put forth, to the point where this band’s reputation has well preceded the release of their first official recording project, Moment of Truth.
Digging up the ghosts of popular music’s past, and using themselves like arrays to reflect some of the most potent sounds and moods ever devised in music, The Red Clay Strays bring to life chilling moments that remind you so much of what modern American music has forgotten, from Muscle Shoals to Memphis, from doo-wop to Southern rock, from Ben E. King to Canned Heat. About the only thing that’s lacking here is much anything resembling country, except for in some key moments. But with the throwback nature of their soulful sound and the circles they run in, it’s within independent country and roots channels that they’ve made their mark, and been welcomed with open arms.
It all starts with the slim and pompadoured frontman Brandon Coleman. Not of this time, his soul is from the Sun Records era, and so is his voice. What makes The Red Clay Strays a concern for the country and roots world is that he’s backed by a good ol’ two-guitar-attack Southern rock band from south Alabama in the form of guitarist and background vocalist Drew Nix, guitarist Zach Rishel, Andrew Bishop on bass, and John Hall on drums. Though Brandon Coleman and Drew Nix help right some of the band’s songs, it’s actually Brandon Coleman’s brother Matthew that does most of the writing for Moment of Truth.
For five years The Red Clay Strays were said to have been working with a record label on a debut album, in and out of various studios, wrangling with separate producers who tried to take their raw and infectious live sound winning them so much praise, and capture it for the recorded medium. But it never was quite right. They couldn’t follow orders, or be fit in a box. Even as word of their enrapturing shows began to spread well beyond Alabama, you still had to take the word of those who’d witnessed it first hand because only a couple of singles lingered out there for discovery.
Fed up with the process, The Red Clay Stray walked away from the label, solicited their rabid fans for assistance, and off of a $40,000 goal, raised $56,000+, and set out to record an album themselves, in a private room, with all analog equipment capturing live takes. They ended up doing 12 songs in 8 days, playing day and night, sleeping on the floor of the studio. The result is their Moment of Truth in more ways than one.
This album is not The Red Clay Strays live, meaning what you experience at one of their shows. Nothing will ever live up to that. And similar to other soulful Southern rock bands with dynamic singers like 49 Winchester, an album is always going to be a step down from the live show. But even beyond that initial understanding, Moment of Truth takes some warming up to, and may even come across as a little sleepy, or a even “one note” upon initial listen, despite the diversity of influences it boasts. The studio space is there to be explored, to allow you to bring in guests to embolden songs in ways you can’t live, and to make up for that lack of kinetic live energy.
But if you give it some time, the chemistry that makes The Red Clay Strays so magical, and that you hear their fans testify about begins to become more and more evident. In your mind’s eye, you can sense why so many rave about them, and eventually any trepidation begins to subside so you can enjoy Moment of Truth for what it is, whether you’re a sworn devotee, or just discovering them.
“Do Me Wrong” gives you all of those vintage chills of a standard like “Stand By Me.” The song “She’s No Good” is the epitome of a Southern roadhouse country rock blues song that does transport you right into the action of a Red Clay Strays live set, or what you imagine it to be. The dudes definitely do have it, and some of the initial “sleepy” vibes come down to the sequencing of the tracks as opposed to the actual mood captured to tape. Even in their most reserved moments, there is a boiling energy and passion behind this band that breathes an elevated level of feeling into their music rarely expressed in the present tense.
Out in the wild is still likely the best way to get the full-bodied experience of what The Red Clay Strays have to offer. And that’s not a backhanded compliment toward this record whatsoever, just a reality of the circumstances. But in their Moment of Truth of finally stepping into a studio, The Red Clay Strays still prevail.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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