Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway

The Righteous Hillbillies - Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway 

The power and passion brought to bear on the ten tracks compromising Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway marks a significant leap forward thanks to the added spike of songwriting talent enlivening the songs. The Righteous Hillbillies are quite talented at calling upon tradition to inform their songs, but their fourth studio album finds them upping the ante with an increased emphasis on songwriting outstripping the band’s laudable past accomplishments while still remaining true to the original impetus driving their creativity and sound. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Brent James, lead guitarist Nick Normando, keyboardist Chris Bartley, drummer Barret Harvey, and bassist Jeff Bella are at or near their collective and individual artistic peaks within this context and they are stretching in ways they only hinted at on previous releases. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway might be rooted in the blues and blues rock, but they aren’t content with merely revamping a bygone form. Instead, the album’s ten songs are a sturdy reminder of what great songwriting can do with old forms.  

Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway begins with the memorable opener “Rollin’”. The Righteous Hillbillies are just one of those rare, but great bands, where each individual member is crucial to bringing the proper final effect. The building blocks of the ten songs invariably are focused on the rhythm section and one of the best examples comes with this song. Barret Harvey’s drumming and Jeff Bella’s bass playing. Brent James gives a great vocal here and on the album’s second track “Throwing Stones” that ranks among the album’s best moments. The second song has much more firepower than the opener, or at least utilizes the band’s talents in a much different way, but it illustrates another key strength of the band. The union between guitars and the organ are a big part of the band’s sound on “Throwing Stones”. It’s certainly just as true on the album’s third track “All Down But Nine”, but there’s another aspect to this track not as pronounced on the earlier numbers. Brent James’ songwriting has a spartan style, ideal for the blues because he doesn’t waste a word, and creates strong characters through a keen minded use of imagery. Those storytelling strengths are used in a slightly different direction and come into sharper focus on the title track, but the major story with this song is how well integrated the acoustic and electric guitars are around the typically strong rhythm section playing. 

The wasted, jagged beauty of “Call Me a Doctor” comes from a place of lusty desperation and Chris Bartley’s piano is a big reason for that. The lyrics run through a well arranged cavalcade of blues tropes, but James guts it out with such unbridled gusto that it’s difficult not to like it. The uptempo quasi-shuffle of “Shackles & Chains” reeks of the yearning of freedom implied in its title. James lays down a vocal that has every bit of needed punch to get those lyrics over. Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway gets over thanks to a fair amount of gravel and grit dredged up from the details of the their lives. It scores big and will make plenty of fans happy. 

8 out of 10 stars

Dale Butcher

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