(Crow On Ten, CD)
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
That aphorism is an old favorite, conveying that “almost” is never good enough. That is, unless you’re dealing with a situation, as in a game of horseshoes, in which simply being a hair better than your opponent gets the job done. Or as when lobbing a hand grenade, when precision is less important than feckless brutality.
The Burlington-based Western-metal outfit Waylon Speed — composed of three-quarters of late, great truckstop rockers Chuch and one member of the dearly departed jam-pop trio Lucy Vincent — are familiar with the concept of close but not close enough. During their respective heydays, both Chuch and LV achieved considerable success. Both toured widely and cultivated dedicated fan bases. But for all those accomplishments, neither band reached its respective potential.
Many observers, including this one, predicted Chuch would be the next big band out of Burlington. But, for whatever reason, the road-warrior lifestyle that carried them through festivals, rock clubs and dive bars from coast to coast never translated to a higher level of rock stardom. Likewise, Martha’s Vineyard’s Lucy Vincent, while equally talented and well traveled, couldn’t make the leap from regional darling to national commodity.
On their newly released double album, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades — a follow-up to the band’s 2010 debut, Georgia Overdrive — Waylon Speed explore the peculiar conundrum of being close and yet so far away. But, rather than a statement about previous successes and frustrations, the album highlights a more fundamental question of musical identity.
Last year’s release was a jagged hybrid of west Texas rockabilly and southern-fried metal. Waylon Speed’s sophomore attempt delves even further into the juke joint in which those two genres forged their whiskey-fueled union. On Georgia Overdrive, the band contrasted the styles side by side; here, WS untangle the mesh of frayed, dirt-encrusted patch cords and neatly coil them together. Disc one, Horseshoes, isolates the band’s twangier, pop-infused material, while the second disc, Hand Grenades, tears open the throttle with vicious prog and metal.
Horseshoes opens on “Amplifier Switches,” a cruising little country rocker that reintroduces local songwriter Kelly Ravin as an uncommonly versatile talent. As hinted at on the band’s debut, the former Lucy Vincent front man seems to have truly found his voice with Waylon Speed. His dusty croon is a perfect match for the song’s road-trip rock appeal.
“Koi Pond” is next and features Noah Crowther on lead vocals. The ex-Chuch bassist locks in with drummer — and brother — Justin Crowther, who unleashes a roiling firestorm that propels this rockabilly scorcher. Lead guitarist Chad Hammaker, also of Chuch, is in equally fine form, delivering searing lines that counter Noah Crowther’s rapid-fire melodies.
Following another rockabilly barn burner, the Noah Crowther-led “Self Divide,” Ravin again takes the wheel on “Skeletons.” The contrast between the two front men is striking. Crowther favors a direct and often rambunctious melodic approach, not so far removed from the rowdier fare found on Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats. Ravin exudes cool reserve. Especially on “Skeletons,” he resembles the precocious, if eternally heartsick, Ryan Adams from his Faithless Street-era Whiskeytown days. Their respective styles and tones probably shouldn’t work together. But they do, and this speaks to the group’s unusual ability to corral seemingly disparate influences, as does the instrumental metal fury found on Hand Grenades.
Waylon Speed are hardly the first band to match metal and country. The most famous recent example is probably Hank Williams III, who is equally comfortable tipping his cowboy hat to his iconic grandfather and father as he is indulging harder musical vices. It would be difficult to ask anyone to approach the power and ingenuity of the Third’s forays into Western metal. But Hand Grenades is an intriguing complement to the punchy twang found on Horseshoes. The band’s hard edge may alienate some listeners, but, to these ears, any excuse for Hammaker to indulge his inner shredder is a good one.
From the disc’s opening bell, “Lassiter,” through the sinister closer, “Under the Cottonwoods,” Hammaker makes a strong case for being ranked among the area’s finest technical players. Justin Crowther revisits his punk and hardcore roots to reveal versatility and skill that go way beyond train beats and country swing. Like Hammaker, his playing is fast, powerful and precise.
Close may only count in horseshoes and hand grenades. But in the case of Waylon Speed, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades is more than close enough.
The band celebrates the release of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades at Nectar’s this Saturday, March 26.