This self-titled release is the Virginia outfit The Hackensaw Boys’ first full-length release in six years. Their line-up now features vocalist-guitarist David Sickmen, son Jonah on charismo (a percussive instrument invented and played by former band member Justin Neuhardt and their last album title), Chris Stevens handling upright bass and Caleb Powers variously playing fiddle, banjo and mando. Musically, they remain firmly within string band territory, although, as Sickmen sings on the opening flatpicked chugger Things We’re Doing, “No one wants to live in the past”. The band honour their roots but are not anchored to them, although the song itself is essentially about striving for equality (“It’s time for you to be free/As I’ve been allowed to be /You deserve as much as me”).
Driven by jangling mandolin, guitars, handclaps and charismo. Mary Shelley is an infectious, upbeat neo-folk number that’s been hanging around for over a decade, waiting for the right moment; the lyrics addressing the sea change the Frankenstein novelist galvanised in modern mythology and the quest to combat mortality (“Damn you Mary Shelley /All the seeds you planted in our minds…You couldn’t just keep it to yourself/Some ideas need no help/Into the light of day”), referencing the death of her prematurely born daughter that fed into the novel’s themes (“You turned death into a life/Only to leave it here”).
With woody bass notes and dancing bowed fiddle prominent, The Weights keeps the tempo energised on a track that playfully charts different personality types to watch out for when forming relationships, the heavyweights, the middleweights and the lightweights who’ll “rush right in, they will not hesitate/You better believe they are a cheap date…There’s no way they will ever last”), though it suggests steering clear of all of them.
The banjo steps up to the plate for Cages We’re Grown In, a number about adversity and finding a way to rise above it (“Only two things you can do when lost my friend/Panic or take a deep breath”), about ageing and not becoming part of “a long line of fools” who allow themselves to be caged by things they don’t think they can change.
A fiddle-flavoured old-time waltzing two-step, Sara Beck from Modern West joins Sickmen for My Turn, a song about asking for a second chance (“I suppose if you leave, I’ll have it comin to me, and I’m beggin’ you to stay, and try to relearn to love me”) in a relationship where life on the road has taken its toll. The Dylanish sounding propulsive strummer Old New Mexico continues on similar lines (“it’s hard/To ask for something I know she won’t give/Though not long ago, she freely did/She took it all away and now I’m feeling like her toy”) with its chorus hook.
Strangers is another goodtime, fiddle-featured rootsy stomp that returns to the theme of finding what we have in common and not what divides us (“Well don’t you judge, share your space/See yourself in every stranger’s face”) and opening our arms rather than clenching our fist. Positivism is on the wing too, with the strummed Only On The Brightside, which pretty much sums itself up (“I will not sing a sad song/Not today”), albeit still suffused with regrets of things not said and moments let go too soon.
Having conjured Dylan earlier, they now offer up a cover of one of his classics, a slow march rhythm reading of All I Really Want To Do. The relationship song (“If you want me to/I could be there for you”), On Your Time, also harks back to the folk-pop 60s and some hints of Eastern psychedelia colours with its mandolin and fiddle flecked notes and a circling percussive rhythm. Finally, bringing down the shutters with what sounds like a live-in-the-studio blazing fiddle bluegrass instrumental, Rye Straw will have you risking the crockery as you stamp your feet along.
Formed in 1999, the Hackensaw Boys released four albums in seven years but, for whatever reasons, only two in the subsequent fifteen. Now embarking on their third decade, the tellingly eponymous title declares itself a fresh start, an invigorating statement of who they are and, more to the point, where they’re going. For the faithful and new arrivals alike, it promises to be a rewarding journey.
Hackensaw Boys is out on 24th June 2022
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