Chunky grooves, spidery guitar, and homespun philosophy fuel the aptly named Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues, the latest and best-yet release from Reverend Freakchild. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Sal Paradise is ably supported on the new CD by collaborators including Hugh Pool on lap steel and harmonica.
It’s hard to imagine writing a 21st-century song called “Keep on Trucking” without being hopelessly derivative. But Rev’s nose-to-the-grindstone folk-rock hymn powered by a melodic bass line puts the lie to that. The whole album reaches back unapologetically to musical and thematic traditions. It’s that open-faced honesty that makes it work.
So does the musicianship, highlighted by the three instrumentals: “Angel$ of Mercy,” “Lullaby,” and the riff-driven mini-suite “Soul Transforming Realization” with roaring drumming by Chris Parker.
A bit of Jorma seems to flow through “Moonlight Messages.” “Tears of Fire” is a howl of rough-riding slide-blues in which Paradise lets loose with a bluesy growl mic’d as if from a long way away – Steppenwolf meets T. Rex. The spiritual side comes through in Rev’s choice of covers, Reverend Gary Davis’s “Its Gonna Be Alright” and a raw take on the traditional “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.”
A rootsy, partly electrified attack is the signature of Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank on their equally aptly titled album American Shuffle. Minneapolis brothers Teague and Ian Alexy open the disc with the mumbled adolescent wail of Teague’s funny “Everybody’s Got a Baby But Me.” Some of his tracks remind me of the tongue-in-cheek high-lonesome charm of Hayes Carll, others of the folky smoothness of James Taylor.
The rawest songs come from Ian, whose nasal whine, in songs like “Down the Line” and “When the Night Comes,” comes on as gutsy and authentic but can get grating after awhile. Still, there are pleasures throughout the collection: the abrupt ending of “Take This Town” on the disenchanted lyric “You used to view the world so romantically”; the merging of slide guitar and harmonica in “Down So Low”; the surprising (at this late date) paean to the legendary New York Yankees manager in “The Day Billy Martin Quits.” (“Some have a chip on their shoulder, Billy had a lumber yard.”)
It’s also refreshing to witness a songwriter’s imagination go worldwide and pagan in a genre that so often borrows from Christian gospel, as the love song “Me, You & the Universe” concludes that “The Gods don’t take this love lightly.” Imagination fails the brothers only on “Old Number Four,” whose melody is uncomfortably like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Taken all together, the harshness of Ian’s singing and the scratchy electric guitars balance out the plainspoken philosophizing of Teague’s songs, as both ride firm musicianship and an appealing homespun sound produced by Ryan David Young. And how many Americana albums include a viola da gamba in the credits?