Band of Heathens
The Band of Heathens (BOH) have made a pandemic record, loosely alluded to by its title, Stranger, the sixth studio album for the Austin-based unit, and their first of original material since 2017’s Deuende. Actually, the title for this one, wasn’t directly drawn from the pandemic but rather influenced by the Albert Camus existential novel and by the sci-fi classic of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Yet, it inevitably proved prophetic both as a descriptor of the pandemic and for their invisible fans who have faithfully tuned in to the band’s virtual shows that have continued through these weird times. The band is inextricably identified with Austin but members (Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist, Trevor Nealon, Richard Milsap, and Jesse Wilson) in fact have homes in California, North Carolina, and Tennessee in addition to the home base in Austin. As such, they’ve had to adjust to the pandemic too. Streaming concerts individually is easy enough, but the band does a weekly Zoom show now too. And, on top of this, the album was not recorded in Austin but in a “strange” place for them, Portland, OR. They collaborated with famed producer, Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacker, Modest Mouse, Bill Frisell). Martine’s hallmarks of electronica, ethereal landscapes, and layered sonics is all over the record.
BOH stamps the album with its increasingly outspoken political take, heard first on the opener “Vietnorm,” bassist Jesse Wilson’s imagining the arrival of George Wendt’s Cheers character Norm. That segues to “Dare,” with its strains of British Invasion pop and lush harmonies examining the notion of ‘fake news” versus “good” or “bad” news. Later “Truth Left” discourses on the politicization of information while “Call Me Glided” shows how language tends to define reality when in fact actions speak louder than words. These are collective observations, generally right on point, about our current world. Throughout there are infectious hooks and memorable lines coursing through “How Do You Sleep?” and tunes such as “Black Cat,” a real-life podcast tale about the son a seven-foot Portuguese immigrant to NYC at the turn of the century who helped build the Brooklyn Bridge and later killed a panther with his own hands in an underground cage match. Yes, that’s a strange one wrapped in requisite psychedelia.
The band sings as a unit, at times echoing the sound of a major influence, The Band, perhaps most vividly in “South By Somewhere” and “Ashville Nashville Austin”, both about one of their favorite topics, life on the road and the pull of home. It’s surely clear though that the present pandemic state drives the album as depicted in the pair of final songs, “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow” borrowing perhaps from Dylan and certainly from R.E.M’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” But, rather than wallow in despair they end on a more optimistic note, “Before the Day Is Done.”
The Band of Heathens continue to produce solid, memorable, singable songs. It’s their collective harmonies that provide an uplifting vibe that supersedes the subject matter. Nonetheless, it does feel like a bit of an experiment production wise as, at least to this writer, they are better presented with their original organic sound.
- Jim Hynes