Most bands take years to achieve the kind of success that Band of Heathens has found in a mere five years of existence. They’ve been nominated twice for Americana Music Awards. They’ve played Lollapalooza. They’ve done Austin City Limits with a legend like Elvis Costello. This year they accompanied Emmylou Harris, Old 97s, and Abigail Washburn on an ambassadorial trip to the South by Southwest Festival for the Americana Showcase. This year they add to that resume by playing Bonnaroo and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Somehow, during all of that, they found time to write and record their third album, titled Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son.
Working with noted producer George Reiff, who has guided albums by Chris Robinson, The Courtyard Hounds, and Ray Wylie Hubbard among others, Band of Heathens has put together the most mature album of their short careers. In a recent interview, guitarist Ed Jurdi told us that “we were really trying to capture the vibe of a live performance with this album. We were trying to expand ourselves sonically, approaching each song as an individual piece and create a sonic palette for it.”
That individual attention to detail shows in the details of the album. “Enough” sounds like The Meters heard through the filter of Texas Americana. “Hurricane”, Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son‘s only cover, from an old Levon Helm album, shows that the New Orleans theme is not an accident.
The album’s first single, “Medicine Man”, is a straight up fast-tempo Country-Rocker with an excellent hook that draws you in from the first lick. The lyrics are straight up Texas Dirty Blues and the song should prove to be a very popular sing-along in concert for the band.
The album’s gem, though, is the playful and topical “Free Again”, about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The band asks “how can you drill to the bottom of the ocean/and still call yourselves the fishes friend?” and later makes sure to point out the blame doesn’t all fall on BP’s shoulders, saying “Some of us just got lazy/some of us just got numb/some of the world’s most well-known people/are happy just sucking their thumb.” “Free Again”, while sounding a bit like a Randy Newman song, is very John Prine-esque in its ability to take weighty political issues and put a humorous spin on it that makes the point while destroying any hint of preachiness.
Anyone who thinks Americana Music is filled with old-timers and recreationists would do well to check out Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son. There’s nothing old or even old fashioned about this album. It honors the tradition of those gone before but comes away sounding completely fresh and new.