|Hacienda Brothers - What's Wrong With Right|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 01 August 2006|
Yes, I know, as a writer/editor/degreed journalist and especially as Music Editor for this mag, I shouldn’t miss stuff like this, but after glancing at the photos and credits on the new Hacienda Brothers CD – and not noticing a crucial line, in big type – I was surprised, delightfully surprised, when I threw the disc in and what came slithering out of the speakers was… Memphis soul. I don’t recall this being on the Stax label, I says to myself. I see nothin’ but white guys, cowboys all over this thing. You can tell, by the hats and the shirts and the overalls and the Arizona desert backdrops. And listen to that pedal steel, and the squeezebox. Cowboys. You’d think a soul album would have at least a brother or two, you know, a cowboy of color, something that might’ve prepared me…
Besides, I know these dudes, they are cowboys. I’ve seen the two lead Hacienda Brothers separately countless times in clubs in L.A., Chris Gaffney with his Cold Hard Facts or as one of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men, and Dave Gonzalez with his Paladins (had them on my cable TV show years ago), or either of them in any of the countless fluid configurations that hit the hillbilly stages of SoCal. Playin’ country, playin’ roots rock, playin’ rockabilly, maybe a little folk, a little bluegrass, maybe even a little bit o’ pop… but soul music? I don’t recall cryin’ in my beer over no soul music comin’ outta these cats.
Okay, I’ll stop droppin’ my -g’s and focus on the mystery at hand, but first two semi-important pieces of business. One, don’t pay too much attention to the scores you saw at the top (8 and 7.5); like our Top 10 Rock Bands of All Time feature (have some fun and check it out), the scores reflect the criteria applied but not necessarily the pleasure derived. I love this album, loved it from the first listen. I love it 9, maaaybe even 9.5.
Two, we have a rule here at the AVRev.com music section that you don’t get to pontificate about an album unless you’re really really Really Familiar with the performer’s output. So I have to confess that I’m writing this without having heard the Hacienda Brothers’ first, eponymous album. Double confession: I also committed this sin when I reviewed Dengue Fever’s Escape from Dragon House in May. In both cases the first release was on an obscure label and very hard to find, and in both cases I’d done all the research I could to familiarize myself with the unheard album and the group’s history. So the truth is, I’m listening to (and commenting upon) this album the way most of you will, as my introduction to the Hacienda Brothers. What you see is what you get.
What I didn’t see, on the inside cover, across ankle level of the photo of our Brothers planted somewhere in the Tucson desert from which they sprang, was the slogan, “The Sound of Western Soul.” A nice catchphrase on their MySpace page asks, “Who would’ve thought that Country Road and Soul Boulevard would intersect out in the Arizona desert?” But not expecting anything but country music when I first listened made for a memorable, smile-inducing bolt from the blue – which, of course, I’ve just ruined for you. Sorry.
Their publicist Cary Baker told me their live shows usually start with the straight country and progress into the soul sound; on the album, it isn’t until the sixth cut, really (despite the steel and squeezebox and, yes, the title cut which is pretty darned country) – the Dave Gonzalez-penned “The Last Time” – that the full country roots spring up, and boy do they. It opens with David Berzansky’s pure old school slip-sliding steel guitar slithering up the scale then zigzagging two steps down and one back, Hank Maninger’s thick walking bass out for a serious country stride, then Gaffney coming in with a vocal that would make Freddy Fender cry and put a grin on California cowboy faces from Spade to Merle to Dwight. Chris’s sense of the distinct, relaxed timing that gives country music crooning its inherent character has been MIA in Nashville for years – no, with few exceptions, for decades – but valued in some towns south of Bakersfield.
This is a great, great song. A dozen listenings into the album, I started hitting the repeat button just as “The Last Time” reached the very end of its long beautiful fade, and wound up blasting it an unprecedented eight times in a row, as loud as my wimpy car stereo would take it. (Not since Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil with the Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly” 45… ) This tune can stand with any country song by any country legend you can name, period, opening note to fade, vocals to lyrics, arrangement to playing, timing to soul. And in this one song you’ll hear most of the other representative delights from the big What’s Wrong with Right soul country stew: Dave Gonzalez’s fine guitar work, sometimes echo-y and atmospheric and reminiscent of the Lovin’ Spoonful (they loved those Nashville Cats) and other times meshing seamlessly with Berzansky’s pedal steel for that divine sound you get nowhere else but in classic-style country, and always the skilled, savvy beat laid down by drummer Dale Daniel, who knows steady doesn’t have to be boring, that good country songs (and soul) are driven like powerful but smoothly loping horses, and that cymbals are for punctuation and not always.
And – the song itself. This CD is just packed with great ones, eight of them originals, all but one written or co-written by Gonzalez, who on the strength of this album has to now be elevated to elite status among songwriters. “The Last Time,” our singer says, never really was, before, but wake up honey, it is now: “So before you leave and think you're right/You're wrong again, it's our last fight/Yes, this time is the last time/That we’re through” – the nailer ending being one of those too-clever phrases that tells an entire tale in so few words, a hallmark of stand-out country music. How about this? “So many times I'd take you back/Then realize the heart you lack” – yow! Right between the eyes, rubber bullet, velvet boxing glove, simultaneously sad and scathing. There’s so much gold in Gonzalez’s taut phrases, you’ll discover your own favorites, but this last line from another song of his just slayed me: the singer’s woman came home late last night and he sees she’s acting “Different Today”: “Something has happened that you can’t disguise/I’ve asked you no questions, your eyes tell me lies/You don’t know half the price of the cost you just paid.”
Before looking more at the writing, a couple of musician notes must be added. Maninger’s bass playing switches effortlessly back and forth from the marching bottom required for country color to the melody leads often sneaking in on the soul numbers that transform them. Berzansky’s pan-genre steel guitar is crucial to the H Bros concept, and a joy to hear. And guest musician Joe Terry’s piano and organ are likewise key, often defining where we are with just a fill here and there, a country tinkle, a soulful organ crescendo.
Chris Gaffney’s one solo writing effort is a good’n, a tip to his Irish heritage, “If Daddy Don’t Sing Danny Boy” – a real weeper, but a little less inventive melodically than the rest of this consistently strong album (though the instrumental break in the middle is real good). Two tunes are Gaffney-Gonzalez collaborations with manager Jeb Schoonover, two vintage Charlie Rich (“Rebound” from ‘59 starts out like ska tune and turns into something that would’ve been a perfect vehicle for The King, if only he had had a clue how to pick a song), Gamble and Huff’s classic “Cowboys to Girls” (1968), the title song from Gonzalez and album producer Dan Penn (spiritual touchstone for this group), and two others from Penn’s songwriting past (with partner Spooner Oldham) that tell you plenty about him – “Cry Like a Baby,” rendered so indelibly by the Boxtops in ’68 (and yet, and yet, this version may even be better!), and the 1966 Percy Sledge chestnut “It Tears Me Up” (which will). The album closer is the lone Gonzalez-Maninger tune, the wicky-wacky instrumental “Son of Saguaro,” with all manner of reverbed instruments, Gaffney’s accordion imitating harmonica, sound effects (wind, water, rattlesnakes, rain sticks) – it could have fit right in to a Sergio Leone film in the ‘60s, and no doubt will wind up in some soundtrack somewhere.
You may wonder how I can call parts of What’s Wrong with Right soul, when there are no horns to speak of (one trumpet on “It Tears Me Up”), admittedly not enough backup vocalizing, and all that countrified instrumentation. Can a steel guitar or accordion break really fill the shoes of Memphis horns? It is a strange anomaly, maybe a little bit of genius on the part of the Hacienda Brothers band; much credit goes to the songwriting and song selection, the arrangements and playing, but give hefty acknowledgement to Chris Gaffney’s soulful singing. Dave Gonzalez more than holds his own on his three tracks (he just kills “Rebound,” a perfect Paladins number), but Gaffney is really in his element wringing soulful intent, with a craggy voice that may seem somewhat strained and imprecise but, upon closer listening, is hitting every damn note right where it lives.
And isn’t that how we have to define soul music? And country music too, though that notion has been all but lost amongst the slick all hat/no cattle, all looks/no legacy “country” singers and players. (Lord have mercy, I caught Rascal Flatts on TV while in the midst of listening to the Haciendas, and it was sooo painful to sit through.) Soul music and country music have little to do with geography or race. It’s just the feeling, man. Cut the crap. It’s either there, or it isn’t. As the Brothers simply state, what’s wrong with right?
I’ve heard cleaner-produced albums. This is no sonic masterpiece. But if what you’re trying to accomplish as the producer is to have people get what the band is doing, Dan Penn has succeeded 100 percent. These players aren’t flashy. You don’t know how far their chops go, because they’re wise enough to understand that virtuosity doesn’t serve their purpose (not that it ain’t difficult to do what they do). There seems to be a looseness that wouldn’t cause many to exclaim right off, wow, what a tight band! But Penn’s production gives them just the right amount of space to slipslide in and out of their various creative instrumental combinations and colors. Some great musicians show off, others serve the music. What’s Wrong with Right would not be the shining diamond it is if it were overplayed or overproduced. Thank you, mah brothers.