Review – Reckless Kelly’s “American Jackpot / American Girls”
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)
– – – – – – – – – – – –
Purchase from Reckless Kelly
Purchase from Amazon
May 25, 2020 @ 10:16 am
It might have been a helluva review.
I stopped reading after the snarky SPLC comment
May 25, 2020 @ 10:41 am
Why? Only the One Percenter’s on the Pureness of Heart scale can be assured of not running afoul of the SPLC.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 25, 2020 @ 10:48 am
I mean, SCM is anti-politics!
Meanwhile, stances like “black humans deserve human rights” are sooooo political!
May 25, 2020 @ 10:51 am
The comment was not a dig at the Southern Poverty Law Center, it was an obvious exaggeration of an otherwise very real concern about how polarizing the mere subject of the United States has become due to seething political acrimony. This entire review was based around trying to explain why this seething acrimony should NOT be brought to this Reckless Kelly album, because it’s not relevant. Your comment would be another example of this acrimony that has many taking very reactionary stances based off of otherwise harmless statements or symbols.
And if you think this isn’t a legitimate concern, I would point to Nike being called racist, and being forced to recall and scrap a pair of sneakers that had the Betsy Ross version of the American Flag on them recently, despite the flag NOT being in the database of the Anti Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate symbol.
The whole point of this review was to say to not judge this book by its cover (or title) as American braggadocios, or derisiveness like we have seen from some recent Americana projects. But of course, not reading past the 3rd sentence, you wouldn’t know that.
May 26, 2020 @ 12:31 pm
Now do “good people on both sides”.
RK is my favorite band, I was looking forward to this review.
I wish we could go just one day without this political garbage getting between us all.
But sure, let’s all listen to RK’s American Blood and discuss.
May 29, 2020 @ 7:09 am
The SPLC comment was unnecessary. When people include unnecessary and knowingly inflammatory lines in an essay/review/whatever they do so to inflame. I’ve been reading SCM for a long time, long enough to remember getting into it with you because I thought you were too much the bleeding heart. You can see a definite swing over the past year in your writing from a more let’s say ‘Austin’ viewpoint toward for lack of better description, the alt-right. Seems like you’ve been reading/listening to a lot of that stuff lately. I don’t care what your politics are, truly, but they don’t add anything to your writing, they don’t help the artist, and they distract from the purpose of ‘saving country music’. Take it or leave it, and I’m not going to argue about it with you, but that’s my observation as a long time reader. Who will keep reading, regardless, because you highlight music that nobody else does.
May 29, 2020 @ 5:16 pm
I appreciate your feedback. I can assure you my politics haven’t changed whatsoever, which is anti-politics, beliving they’re nothing more than a scourge and a contagion, with this comments section being another example. Also, Austin is absolutely anything by “alt-right,” and I think most anyone would back me up on that.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was simply a cultural reference point for an organization that is known for assigning certain symbols as hate symbols. Taken within the context of the paragraph and this article, it would meant to point out how simply saying “America”—as this album does twice in the title—along with evoke American imagery (as this album also does) can immediately evoke strong opinions from people regardless of the material itself. It can also be the catalyst for assumptions, from the left and the right. If anything political was meant in the statement, I would have no reason to fess up to it. Was it “unnecessary?” Sure, I guess. But I will not self-censor myself to an increasingly uptight world looking to be offended both otherwise innocuous comments. I haven’t changed at all. It’s the world which as become ultra-sensitive and outright excited to be offended at every turn. It is unfortunate some took offense at that line, and if I had known that, I wouldn’t have included it. However, with the goal posts constantly being moved, and more and more people actively seeking anything that may be construed offensive legitimately or otherwise, it is an impossible situation to keep everyone happy. I think the review taken as a whole most assuredly verifies that the line was in no way meant to be inflammatory.
Thanks for reading,
May 25, 2020 @ 8:46 pm
The SPLC comment is why I kept reading.
May 27, 2020 @ 4:24 pm
It is a true joke. Suck it up, snowflake.
SPLC has become a gag. They see a bogeyman everywhere.
May 25, 2020 @ 10:21 am
I am going to be giving this a listen today. I have been listening to RK since the beginning and seeing their live shows throughout the years. We are fortunate to still have the Braun Brothers creating new music for us to enjoy and hopefully soon gigs to enjoy!
May 26, 2020 @ 9:12 am
I honestly think they’re getting better with age. And you’re right: we are fortunate.
A lot to like about this album.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 25, 2020 @ 10:37 am
Holy dogwhistles, Batman.
Calling a civil rights organization “anti-American” is so, so much worse, and more “politicized,” than anything Isbell has ever said to hurt your feelings.
Maybe you should have thrown in a line about them getting “uppity,” to drive the point home?
I hope this wins back the readers who had a meltdown about your covering Rhiannon’s last album, because that line was egregious.
May 25, 2020 @ 10:55 am
I never called the Southern Poverty Law Center “anti-American.” I never even used that phrase in this review, despite you putting it in quotes. As I said in the comment above, I simply was making an illustration of just how polarizing the simple subject of “America” has become.
Holy dogwhistles, indeed.
Once again, folks bringing their reactionary political assumptions are fucking up a comments section as opposed to reading the review.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 25, 2020 @ 11:29 am
Oh, sorry about that!
You just implied that a pre-eminent civil rights group of the last 50 years is anti-American.
Sorry to make the subtext text!
Brother, if you can’t tell the difference between the jokes Isbell tells at the expense of random jackasses on Twitter and going after the SPLC…don’t try to make the joke.
May 25, 2020 @ 1:05 pm
Cool Lester Smooth,
I implied nothing. You assumed something. The reason I invoked the name of the Southern Poverty Law Center is because they are the most well-recognized organization that designates hate symbols. They’re a pretty polarizing organization, too. If I felt the need to call them anti-American or evil, I would have done so. Or if I personally felt that way, I would fess up to that. But honestly, I don’t have an opinion on them one way or another. I understand how perhaps someone could make an assumption based off of my comment, and I was more than happy to clarify that when the question arose. But if you’re going to assume what I mean only three sentences into an 11-paragraph review without reading further to have your hypothesis refuted, you’re the one being reactionary, shortsighted, and unfair.
Also, you continue to bring up Jason Isbell’s Twitter. My concerns for Jason Isbell’s rhetoric go well beyond his Twitter behavior. It’s things he’s said in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Tennessean, and in his songs that reach millions of people. To cast off his words as nothing more than Twitter fodder is to purposely mislead people, similar to making the assumption I called the Southern Poverty Law Center anti-American.Nonetheless, tweets matter. They have caused people to be fired. The helped stimulate the Arab spring. A tweet from Jason Isbell holds significantly more weight than the 3rd sentence in an 11-paragraph review of a Reckless Kelly album on a country music blog. So take your own advise, and lighten up.
May 26, 2020 @ 7:34 am
Maybe you should do a better job of making your point, instead of making so many people “misunderstand” what you’re thinking.
May 25, 2020 @ 10:58 am
I guess WAPO and USA Today, among other mainstream outlets are whistling too.
May 25, 2020 @ 11:03 am
No more on this subject.
I apologize that my comment has become so distracting, and I would remove it if I thought it would make things better than worse. But I’m not going to change my writing style to appeal to people who admittedly won’t even read my work to gain context.
This is a review of Reckless Kelly’s record. Remain on topic, or your comments will be deleted.
North Woods Country
May 25, 2020 @ 10:53 am
I’ve said it on this site before–Reckless Kelly is just flat out better than more popular acts on the independent scene. How they’ve stayed so under the radar during these past 7-10 years is beyond me.
May 26, 2020 @ 9:14 am
Really hard to believe. They produce quality music. Period. End of story.
If you haven’t been enjoying “Music from the Mountains” on YouTube, you’re really missing out.
May 25, 2020 @ 10:58 am
Further comments on this review that are of a strictly political nature will be immediately deleted. Keep comments on topic.
May 25, 2020 @ 11:21 am
What a year Jeff Crosby is having, between his own amazing “Northstar” and co-writes on probably all of the best (or at least my favorite) tracks on the record.
May 26, 2020 @ 8:34 am
Agreed. The review should not have overlooked that fact that Jeff, a solid songwriter and exceptional guitar player, and an all around good guy from Idaho, provided lead guitar for an extended amount of time and on tour before the hand off to a dude from some band called Turnpike Troubadours.
The disrespectful, 100% playlist & suggestions free OlaR
May 25, 2020 @ 11:43 am
The 20 tracks are solid.
“I Only See You With My Eyes Closed” was on my extra-disrespectful playlist a couple of month ago. Great track.
Too many country-rock flavoured with folk midtempo tracks for my ears.
My other highlights: “No Dancing In Bristol” & “Another New Year’s Day”.
in The Pipeline:
– High Fidelity – Banjo Player’s Blues – Album – 06/11 (Bluegrass/Folk)
– Mac McAnally – Once In A Lifetime – Album – 07/31
The title track was already released…”Once In A Lifetime” feat. Drake White (05/21)
– Andy Penkow – Chasing The Sun – EP – 07/26 (Australia)
The title track was already released…”Chasing The Sun” (05/20).
– Jake Davey – “Think Of Me” – Single/Track – Released (Australia)
– Andrew Sevener – “Me, My Old Man & Steely Dan” – Single/Track – Released
– Maddy Andrews feat. Jake Davey – “What Could’ve Been” – Single/Track – Released (Australia)
May 25, 2020 @ 12:22 pm
Bravo. Definitely will play over and over. Great melodies, beat, and hooks. Best work from them in years. Trigger, thank you for all of the thoughtful reviews.
May 25, 2020 @ 12:42 pm
I can understand why some bands have fillers on a standard length albums – they don’t have enough good songs…but why do it when you could have cut them out and still have a full album?
That said, the energy on the whole thing…both in how they played and the recording, is pretty stellar.
The Original WTF Guy
May 26, 2020 @ 9:25 am
According to things I have read elsewhere, things that focused excludsivley on the music rather than making comments about other elements, have suggested RK wanted to make some sort of statement and that is what makes up the “American Jackpot” songs. The “American Girls” tunes were cut at the same time but didn’t fit as well thematically but rather than dumping them RK decided to release this as they did.
To me, I listen to the first 10 as an RK album, and the rest as just bonus. But it’s all quite good. Really hope to see these guys some day.
May 25, 2020 @ 2:03 pm
Great review Trigger, some people really don’t seem to get irony or proving your point.
Anyway, love some Reckless Kelly, but yeah always have some tracks to love, some to ok, and some to skip.
Strangely, everyone seems to skip different tracks so its a weird world. Personally I can’t stand Volcano on Sunset Motel but others think its deep. Meh, to quote one of my favourite Jimmy Buffet songs “breathe in, breathe out and move on”
May 25, 2020 @ 5:25 pm
I always liked Reckless Kelly and would listen to them occasionally, but they were never one of my favorite bands. We had a party today and they were in the mix of artists playing throughout the day. Even though I have known most of their songs for years, I have to say that I like and appreciate them more the more I listen. That is the sign of a good band.
May 25, 2020 @ 6:09 pm
I like this new album. 20 songs? believe me, with many artists putting out albums with just 6 or 7 songs. this seems like a greatest hits package. i am a big fan and look forward to seeing a new video from them.
Dave in SD
May 25, 2020 @ 10:27 pm
Love the song 42, and especially love the liner notes about the makeshift baseball field. Having grown up on a farm I certainly relate to baseball games in the farm yard, and hitting one off of the brown monster, the old barn, except for me it was an old corn crib in centerfield. Thanks Reckless Kelly for another great one and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of both albums.
May 26, 2020 @ 5:20 am
Have liked RK for about the past 20 years. Always a good live show. Bought Willie Braun a drink at the Green Parrot in Key West during Mile 0 fest earlier this year (although it seems like two years ago!) and he could not have been more personable. He came to our table and talked for about 10-15 minutes before he went on his way. Will always be a fan.
May 26, 2020 @ 7:44 am
Interesting….most of the comments here are on politics and not the music. Guess that’s “Murica these days.
May 26, 2020 @ 9:27 pm
This is much too great a work for being called “another solid album.” .i understand that there are tracks that become favorites and that grow on us. But there is nuance and depth and turn of phrase here. This is a band that does what it does and deserves WAY MORE credit from the critics. In fact, I enjoyed the review a lot, but thoughts the scores at the last way, and I mean WAY too tepid.
May 27, 2020 @ 4:27 pm
“No Dancing in Bristol” is awesome.
Despite their misguided beliefs, they are a good band. But this album lacked energy.
May 28, 2020 @ 8:43 am
I think these are okay albums. Lot to unpack here, but overall maybe not quite as powerful as their earlier stuff. Still was pleased. Millican will still remain my favorite RK album.
January 22, 2022 @ 6:55 pm
The SPLC comment was spot on.