Baltimoreans Arty Hill and Bosley Bring New Life Into Old Genres Without Watering Them Down
Published: November 23, 2011
Music used to look toward the future, but now it is “addicted to its own past.” At least that’s the case that critic Simon Reynolds makes in his recent book Retromania. But some genres of music are so wrapped up in their traditions that the word “addiction” just doesn’t fit; it’s like saying we’re addicted to air. This is particularly true of country music—it took decades of fighting to get the Grand Ole Opry to allow a drum kit onstage—where “moving forward” has usually meant moving toward the pop mainstream. On the other hand, the folks who try to pretend it’s 1955 (and that rock ‘n’ roll never happened) sometimes come across as the musical cousins of Civil War re-enactors.
Arty Hill, Baltimore’s own country troubadour, blows through both obstacles with his self-released new album Another Lost Highway. The powerful collection of country songs shows us the expected thrills and cold-morning chills of the honky-tonk life—from some unexpected angles.
Hill kicks things off with the stomping energy of a full-wallet Friday night on “Roll Me a Song.” His backing band, the Long Gone Daddys, come in swinging hard on this upbeat two-stepper. (Hill spends part of his time playing the big dance halls around Austin—where Bob Wills is still the king—and so they do swing.)
The pedal steel of Dave Giegerich—who tragically died while the album was being recorded (“The Slide Man,” Music, April 27)—alternately wraps the melody in high, lonesome licks and drives it forward like an electric cow prod, especially on “King of That Thing.”
Still, it’s hard not to think how good that steel would sound with former Long Gone Daddy Dave Chappell weaving his Telecaster wizardry alongside it. Hill has played lead guitar since he and Chappell split ways, and though Hill sounds especially good on the rocker “Big Drops of Trouble,” where his tone hovers somewhere between Keith Richards and Link Wray, it’s hard not to miss Chappell’s distinctive virtuosity a little.
Ultimately, though, Hill puts the instruments in the service of the tales he wants to tell. “In country, the song has to be complete, even without the band,” Hill explains over the phone. He treats each song like a short story, and he says that he’s as influenced by William Shakespeare as he is by Hank Williams. (Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” kicks the narrator in the song “12 Pack Morning.”)
Hill’s got a knack for the one-liner—“I never was a prayer, but a wasted every day-er,” he sings on the title track—but his real lyrical strength lies in the methodical accumulation of details. One song begins like so many country songs, with a scene from the morning after: “Sweet Nebraska, here I am wishing I was stoned again/ Kicking the sheets trying to find my shoes.” When the chorus starts, you think Hill is saying, “Marking time in Omaha, I see you,” and it seems like a plain old sad and lonesome tune. Then the lines, “My baby she don’t come around to see me in my paper gown/ all strung out in the Omaha ICU,” reveal the sense of the song all at once (unless you happen to read the title—“Omaha ICU”—first.)
Not every track works so well. “Breaking-Up Party,” a Latin-flavored shuffle, feels nearly as forced as the event it describes. Still, most of Hill’s songs are spot on. The album’s final cut, “The Last Time I’ll Ever Go Away,” beautifully evokes the pain of the world that seemed so promising when the album began.
Soul and R&B, like country, are more about emotion than innovation, and many of today’s interesting soul acts are in some sense revivalists. But it’s especially hard for a white kid to pull off the soul frontman without seeming like a bad imitation of the Blues Brothers. (Brooklyn soulsters the Dap-Kings record with Sharon Jones and others, precisely because they can’t play that part.) Nevertheless, local boy Bosley (who used to play under the name Tommy Tucker) manages to create a compelling vocal character—while avoiding caricature—on his self-released album Honey Pig.
A couple of months ago, Bosley released a surprisingly slick video for the single “Neon Magazine.” The video’s louche frenzy shows that Bosley isn’t short on confidence, vision, or hip friends. But while the woozy—and impressively detailed—narrative of “Neon Magazine” captures the essence of the Bosley persona, it reveals only a small part of the band’s range.
The Bellevederes—Baltimore’s premiere retro-soul band—are the secret to Honey Pig’s success: They’ve been playing together for a while now and the rhythm section, the horns, and the harmonies were locked in and ready for anything Bosley’s songs could bring.
For his part, Bosley’s tone shifts between the bombastic boast—on the hard-driving “Sharpshooter,” for instance—and the vulnerable swoon of harmony-heavy songs like the bossa-nova-flavored “I Get the Feeling.”
Occasionally, the vocals falter. The otherwise excellent “Jungles”—the horn section kills—is marred by the ultra-falsetto line, “She got caffeine, she got nicotine, she got Vaseline,” which sounds like it was lifted from Beck’s late ’90s near-parody Midnight Vultures. But mostly, Bosley is able to invoke other artists without ever sounding like anyone but himself—or at least his character.
Like Arty Hill, Bosley manages to make this tradition his own by looking backward and forward at the same time. Both Honey Pig and Another Lost Highway create worlds—or versions of the present—to which you’ll want to keep coming back.
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