Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Allman Betts Band - Bless Your Heart

Devon Allman has taken, I gather, to suggesting that the Allman Betts Band hail from “the United States of Americana”.  And that turns out to be more than just a neat line, because Bless Your Heart benefits from the variety that comes from venturing into some different, and modern-sounding, Americana territory now and then.  Which is just as well, because with an album weighing in at 72 minutes, ploughing a stereotypical Southern rock furrow from end to end could have been fatiguing.
So while the opener ‘Pale Horse Rider’ features some excellent guitar interplay, by turns harmonising and counterpointing, and Allman’s vocal is still yer typical Southern drawl, the overall effect is ruminative and shimmering in a way that hints at those indie folkies Fleet Foxes, who are scarcely anyone’s idea of good ol’ boys.
The Allman Betts Band show off their new Mod image
They’re closer to home on the likes of ‘Ashes Of My Lovers’ and ‘Rivers Run’ though, recalling different facets of the Drive-By Truckers.  The former marries twangy guitar chords to a loping rhythm redolent of Ennio Morricone, but with Duane Betts’ slightly nasal vocal and wails of harp from guest Jimmy Hall it has a ragged charm as it layers different textures on top of each other.  And the latter, with its acoustic strumming, is akin to the DBTs in “pretty” mode.  It may be overlong, and the lyrics a bit sappy, but the acoustic guitar solo is appealing, and there’s also a pleasing touch of slowed-down ‘Jessica’ about the climbing guitar line that appears halfway through.
If that stirs comparisons with the Allman Brothers though, it’s got nothing on ‘Savannah’s Dream’, which is likely to have Allmans fans drooling with pleasure.  Now, if you’d told me in advance that the album featured a 12-minute instrumental with some jazzy pretensions, I might have run for the hills.  But fair play to 'em, they make it work in style.  After some initial messing about a stuttering electric piano line triggers jazzy, tripping drums from John Lum, and then they’re off on an adventure that features some stylish guitar motifs, the three guitars working in concert very nicely, thank you very much.  There’s a damn fine, sonically interesting piano solo from John Ginty, bracketed by a couple of guitar solos, the second of which – from Betts, I’m guessing – takes them through the gears as it reaches for the skies, with Lum’s drums reinforced by R Scott Bryan’s percussion.  And if that’s not enough for you, then the later ‘Should We Ever Part’ could be its second cousin, with added vocals, some more propulsive drumming, plenty of urgency, and a catchy harmonised guitar riff.
Other highlights include ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’, a simple, sometimes Beatle-is ballad that leans heavily on Ginty’s elegant piano and atmospheric weeping guitar as the backing for Oakley’s sparing vocal, and is stretched out to good effect by a steely, Hispanic-tinged acoustic guitar solo.  Merit badges all round for that one.  Meantime ‘Southern Rain’ may start off with a rather prosaic verse, but it then grabs the attention with its falsetto refrain of ‘I believe in you’ and echoing guitar theme, before the guitars really go to work, playing off each other, off Ginty’s washes of organ, and Allman’s vocal riffing.  And I’ve also got a soft spot for the slide-and-sax-fired uptempo boogie of ‘King Crawler’, a good time tune that jangles along nicely.  It’s inconsequential but fun, and closes with a sax solo by guest Art Edmaiston that should have been higher in the mix.
They can’t keep up the standard across thirteen tracks though.  ‘Magnolia Road’ is an okay tune, but ultimately same-old-same-old sentimental Southern stuff despite another injection of quality piano from Ginty.  And things tail off in pretty tame fashion with ‘Much Obliged’ – on which Allman goes for a Johnny Cash vocal vibe, for reasons passing understanding – and ‘Congratulations’.
There is also, of course, a lot of slide guitar on offer.  Now, I love great slide playing, but there is a style of squeaking, slithering Southern slide guitar that’s too sweet for my tastes at times, and which duly becomes wearing after a while here.  Some more grit from time to time would be welcome.
But for all that, Bless Your Heart finds the Allman Betts Band broadening and deepening their sound, the whole being more than just the sum of their parts – and if they continue to explore new horizons, a serious proposition in their own right rather than keepers of an ancestral flame.

Bless Your Heart is released by BMG on 28 August.

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