by Lydia Hillenburg
The fourth album from Illinois based blues and Southern rock disciples Righteous Hillbillies marks a reinforcement of their traditional approach to songwriting and music making while still offering many examples of their talent for making something personal out of the genre’s tropes. Brent James produced this outing and has done a stellar job of putting the band’s strengths in the best possible light – the weaving of instruments on this crackle with the kind of life listeners might expect more from a live album than a studio concoction. The ten song collection is steeped in traditional invocations of blues and rock traditions, but the songwriting is often startling personal, or at least suggestive, and makes excellent use of the genre as a vehicle for self-expression. This is an album that, instead of just milking blues rock clichés, bleeds sincerity.
It kicks off with the track “Rollin’”. There certainly isn’t anything going on here or elsewhere on Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway that we, as listeners, haven’t heard before. However, Righteous Hillbillies bring a freshness and verve to this tradition that listeners haven’t heard in some time and vocalist Brent James is a big reason why. This sort of music requires the right musicians to bring it off but, even more so, the right singer with an unique combination of pipes, passion, and personality. He delivers that in spades.The organ and guitar driven rocker “All Down the Nine” works up a mighty head of steam from the outset and never relents. The union of Nick Normando’s lead guitar, given extra weight by Brent James’ second guitar laying down a beefy rhythm, with Chris Bartley’s romping Hammond organ lines. This is far more rock than anything else but, like everything else on this album, even this four on the floor powerhouse runs on blues fuel. There’s a pumping acoustic guitar and rollicking piano lines underpinning “Shake This Feeling”, but drummer Barret Harvey’s uptempo swing is the biggest musical highlight here that gives vocalist James a great groove to belt from.
The title song slows things down while broadening the band’s sound. This is, arguably, The Righteous Hillbillies’ finest example on the album of how expertly they refurbish the genre’s clichés for their own use and make them sound fresher than they have in years. The molasses tempo of “Down to Memphis” is quite apropos for its subject matter and Normando’s acoustic slide work is every bit as biting as his electric slide playing on the opener. Bartley’s organ is once again sparring hard with the guitars on “Drama Zone” and the grinding arrangement milks the song’s potential for all its worth. This is, likewise, one of James’ best vocals and he really digs into the song’s arrangement and nicely complements the arrangement. The closing track “Rock, Salt & Nails” is another acoustic blues once again distinguished by Normando’s slide playing and one of James’ most sensitive, considered vocals on Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway. This is a fine reaffirmation of the band’s strengths while still showing clear signs of evolution. The Righteous Hillbillies are capable of hitting all the right notes for this genre of music, but they prove with this latest album that they are capable of writing and performing music in this vein brimming over with surprising originality with personality shining through.
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