Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Howlin’ Brothers: “Trouble” (2014) CD Review

The Howlin’ Brothers have quickly become one of my favorite bands. They put out excellent albums, and put on astoundingly fun and energetic live performances. And from a glance at their tour schedule, I’ve come to the conclusion that these guys never sleep. Somehow in their insane schedule, they’ve found time to record another album, Trouble. And, like their previous releases, Trouble is full of excellent tunes, and is just so much bloody fun (though there are some gorgeous darker, sadder tunes here). How do they do it? Perhaps they channel the spirits of some insane Kentucky moonshining family, and produce the music like automatic writing. I don’t know. All I know is I fucking love this band, and I can’t wait to see them in concert again.

Trouble features original material, written by each of the three band members. It gets off to a great start with “Pour It Down,” a fun tune that kicks off like an old rock and roll song, then quickly takes on a back-porch gospel feel, with backing vocals echoing Ian, who sings lead on this track. Though of course the lyrics are far from gospel; the song just has that feel. You know? Each of these lines is echoed: “She goes crazy/This time of year/When the sun is high/And the moon is low/We go dancing.” Plus, this song has some kick-ass instrumental sections.

“Boogie” is a mellower, but quite catchy old-time country folk tune about a girl who loves to boogie, and does it wherever she is (“Boogies in her car, and she boogies in her seat”). Ah, the kind of girl we all want to know. “Ain’t no telling if my baby’s coming home/She might boogie and shake it ‘til dawn/Boogied all night ‘til the band was gone/And then she came home and she boogied on the lawn.” Ben Plasse wrote this one and sings lead.

Things get good and rough and raw with “Night And Day,” a bluesy gem that will have you tapping your toes and nodding your head in time with the beat. It features some nice blowing on harmonica. “Night And Day” was written by Ian Craft.

The Howlin’ Brothers add a New Orleans flavor to the album on “Monroe,” a wonderful folk tune written by Jared Green. This song had me smiling immediately. Adding the “o” to the end of lines for the rhymes to work creates some funny bits, like “wine-o” in the line “with a glass of red wine-o.” (Do people still use the word wino? I do.)

“World Spinning Round” has a sweet and delicious sound, with a rhythm like a horse slowly trotting across the plains, sadly taking our hero away. Ian Craft sings this one with a sad longing in his voice that is beautiful. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Which way is up, dear?/I can’t find the ground/I can’t get over you/My world is upside down/I’m stuck in this fantasy.”  Plus, this tune features some nice work on violin. And Mike Fried adds some really wonderful touches on pedal steel.

“Troubled Waltz” is a slow, very cool, darker number (you might even call it kind of sexy). A different version of this song was included on an earlier release, The Sun Studio Session. I absolutely love this song. Ben Plasse’s lead vocals have a both a power and a need. And I dig the way the backing vocals interact with him.

“Sing A Sad Song” has a more mainstream feel, with a kind of positive, uplifting vibe. “If you need a place to fall/Honey, come on down/You’ll feel right at home.” Yes, I love this song. “When we sing our songs/I can hear the angels singing along/To a sad, sad song/’Cause it feels good.” Indeed.

Ooo-wee, they pick up the pace with “Pack Up Joe,” a great, frantic bit of bluegrass bliss. “Let’s hit the road again.” Oh yes, this needs to be on everyone’s road mix tapes. They really demonstrate what great musicians they are on this one. “Pack Up Joe” was written by Jared Green.

“Love” is probably the most surprising of all the tracks on this release. It has more of a reggae thing happening, and reminds me a bit of Entrain. Ben Plasse wrote this one. “And thank you for the loves that went wrong.”

“Hard Times” is a delightful bluegrass track, taking troubles and turning them to joy. “I wonder why I ain’t makin’ no money/Hard times are knockin’ on my door again.” I absolutely love this song. There is something in Jared’s voice on this track that reminds me at times a bit of Michael Nesmith.

“I Was Wrong” is probably my favorite track on this release, and not just because there is a Mr. T reference, and not just because its rhythm brings to mind something from The Muppet Show. This song, perhaps even more than the others, puts me in a fantastic mood. The first lines are: “I thought you was funny/I thought you was fine/I thought you might be the apple of my eye/Well, I was wrong.” I love the vocal approach to this one. There is something delightfully playful in the delivery of several lines. I only wish it were longer.

“Louisiana” is another tune with a really nice, positive vibe, and with a rhythm like a horse joyfully dancing along, no cares in the world. Yet, the lyrics speak of troubles. “I got pieces of my heart in Texas/I got pieces up in Tennessee/I got pieces of my heart that are gone/And they’re never coming back to me.”

Trouble ends with a gospel-sounding tune, “Yes I Am!” The sound of this track is different, like it was caught live, like you stumbled into their tent in the middle of things. It’s very short, like we’re just catching a piece of an ongoing celebration.

CD Track List

  1. Pour It Down
  2. Boogie
  3. Night And Day
  4. Monroe
  5. World Spinning Round
  6. Troubled Waltz
  7. Sing A Sad Song
  8. Pack Up Joe
  9. Love
  10. Hard Times
  11. I Was Wrong
  12. Louisiana
  13. Yes I Am! 


The Howlin’ Brothers are Ian Craft on vocals, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and kick drum; Ben Plasse on vocals and upright bass; and Jared Green on vocals, guitar, harmonica and piano. Joining them on this release are Ricky Skaggs on mandolin; Gregg Stocki on drums; Brendan Benson on vocals, washtub bass and tambourine; Etta Britt on vocals; Bridget Baumgartner on vocals; Phil Madeira and Matty on accordion and scrapeboard; and Mike Fried on pedal steel.

Trouble is scheduled to be released on May 13, 2014 on Readymade Records.

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