There is no dearth of songs or albums these days parading around America as the primary subject matter, from fawning and flamingly-patrotic versions from the mainstream country flock, to the derisive and accusatory stuff coming from the alt-country and Americana set. The United States is a popular and polarizing subject in music right now to say the least. It feels like were mere moments away from the Southern Poverty Law Center declaring the American flag itself as a symbol of hate.
But Reckless Kelly isn’t really looking to dive directly into that whole fracas with their new double record American Jackpot/American Girls, despite what you may glean from the title and cover art. The first song on the album (“American Jackpot”) puts in context how lucky Americans are to be living in this time and place, without overlooking that there’s still many that struggle, and that these lands were taken from others. It’s that dichotomy, and a more nuanced and balanced look at the American experience from being both grateful and proud, but instilled with a little guilt knowing you’ve got it great but others don’t, that sets the table for the record.
Instead of being about America itself in the sense of songs about its grand landscapes or the unique ethos governing the land, American Jackpot/American Girls is more about the American experience told through stories of American people—a grandpa who can fix anything, the baseball player Jackie Robinson. And in the end, it doesn’t really feel like a conceptualized or thematic record at all. It just feels like a quintessential Reckless Kelly record more than anything, meaning you get some rocking songs, some country songs, songs in between, quite a few gems, probably a couple of clunkers, and wind up with a pretty good choice if you’re looking to kill an hour or two listening to some new tunes.
With 20 songs, Reckless Kelly gives you a lot to unpack, but they make it easy by delivering songs with good hooks, fat melodies, and compelling stories and characters consistently throughout the album. This isn’t Jason Isbell or American Aquarium. Reckless can still make your heart bleed. But they’re also here to make sure you have a good time, which you do. You can put a Reckless Kelly album on cover to cover, and it just works for most any occasion.
It may feel a little adulterous to separate the two discs and compare them to each other since this was meant to be a cohesive work. But doing so for conversational purposes, American Girls does feel like the superior installment. American Jackpot has its moments too, but you struggle to hear that next standard for the Reckless Kelly live show, and it’s a little more abstract in its messages, struggling sometimes to make its point.
Some of the writing feels a little stock. “42” is a cool tribute to Jackie Robinson, but doesn’t really put the weight behind his legacy as intended. “Mona” is a fun rocker, but fails to make much of a point in the lyrics at all. The record gets its most political with “Company of Kings,” but it’s not particularly obvious it’s about Trump until you check out the corresponding song artwork located on the Reckless Kelly website.
The band has won a Grammy in the past, and been nominated for others specifically for their album art. The vinyl for this project was delayed, but listeners should go to their site and check out the extensive liner notes for each song, with each track featuring a dedicated cover itself, which is helpful in setting context. Artwork is always part of the Reckless Kelly experience, and this release is no exception.
Meanwhile the opening song on American Girls called “I Can Only See You With My Eyes Closed” might be the best of both sets. “All Over Again (Break Up Blues)” sets one of the best moods on both records. And if you’re more of a die hard country fan looking for what might most appeal to you, start with the steel guitar-drenched weeper “Lonesome On My Own,” into the wind-swept Western-themed “Anyplace That’s Wild” with its jingly spurs and appearance by Suzy Bogguss, and then onto the Dwight Yoakam-feeling “Lost Inside The Groove.”
It’s probably expected there would be a few filler tracks on a 20-song project, and the title track of the second record (“American Girls”) is no exception. How many songs have been written about how beautiful American girls are? Do we really need another?
But perhaps some of the songs of the two-album set are intended to be a little stereotypical of an American album—a little Beach Boys and Mellencamp to add a layer of nostalgia and reflection, and to make a deeper point beyond the songs themselves. There’s some stuff going on beneath the surface of American Jackpot/American Girls that not all listeners may pick up on. Again that’s probably where the more dedicated song artwork helps with its sort of art deco meets Norman Rockwell feel.
And even when they make a bad song, Reckless Kelly still makes it sound so good and gets your head bobbing. That’s what brothers Willy and Cody Braun have been doing for almost 25 years now, with Ryan Engleman of the Turnpike Troubadours recently filling in at lead guitar after the recent departure of David Abeyta.
Don’t expect your typical album about America, expect another solid album from the Reckless Kelly crew that despite a few soft patches, encapsulates the varying sounds and experiences of American life in compelling and enjoyable moments set to music that’s ripe for listening to at almost any time, and crosses appeal from the country, rock, and Americana crowds.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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