Friday, March 8, 2013

The Virtues, Spices and Liquors of Home: 4H Royalty

4H Royalty--One of Colorado's Finest Bands

I wrote about them in a previous post on neo country acts but lately I’ve gotten even more into 4H Royalty.  Hailing from a small town in the plains east of Denver called Byers, Colorado, and describing themselves as purveyors of “twang rock”, 4H Royalty have crafted an amazing and unique sound that pulls heavily on a wide array of influences, everything from traditional country to 80’s post-punk/indie/alternative, with a sprinkling of bar band rock.  Simply put, their sound is almost eerily crafted to appeal to ME, given my background and interests, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I love them so much.  Superficially they remind me of other bands that have sought to meld a punk/post-punk energy with the heartfelt lyricism and roots instrumentation of traditional country such as Wilco and Lucero, but upon repeated listen to their two albums (which are available for digital download on their band web site) what strikes me more is their resemblance to the classic mid-80’s post punk SST bands like Husker Du, the Minutemen, and most specifically the Meat Puppets.  Like Husker Du, they harness the energy of punk but veer away from the stridency, both lyrically and sonically, of it and instead produce music that’s passionate and tough but still melodic.  Like the Minutemen, there’s an element of “corndog” about their entire approach, a way of not taking themselves too seriously while still making music that IS serious and important. 

But as mentioned it’s the Meat Puppets whom 4HR most resemble, which to me is one of the biggest compliments one can pay to a band.  Like the Puppets, 4H Royalty have proudly embraced pre-punk musical idioms, infusing their music with a strong strain of roots, country, and blues in much the same way the MPs melded their early punk leanings with a wild, ZZ Top-meets-the-Grateful Dead mish-mash of bluegrass, psychedelia, and country fried southwestern boogie rock.  They also possess the Kirkwood’s lyrical bent, one that veers between the comical and the heartfelt, often within the same song.  Many of their lyrics seem to be nakedly autobiographical, detailing life growing up in the rural Colorado plains in a way that’s never mawkish but nevertheless retains a touching sentimentality and above all honesty.

Their first album, 2010’s Colossolalia, is an almost unbelievably self-assured and unified debut.  “Rosenberg Family Band”, the leadoff song, has a driving country rock guitar sound that occasionally dissolves into shimmering melodic interludes; the lyrics tell the tale of a fictional, dysfunctional Colorado family band that sounds like the Partridge Family updated for 21st century Colorado.    There’s definitely a driving, Lucero element (I get echoes of the Lucero song “Anjalee” in the chugging guitar chords toward the end) to the guitar on this song that is catchy but hard and extremely enjoyable. “Chinese Turquoise” is less rocking and more melodic but I love the complex interplay of guitars on this song, and the building, ascending chords leading to the chorus; this song also has one of the most soaring, transcendent guitar solos, I’ve heard in a long time—it starts with a set of country sounding notes dripping with vibrato before hitting a set of melodic elements that almost evokes the best of Iron Maiden. 

“Woo Girls” starts off more introspectively but eventually bursts into the similar set of power chords that provides this entire album with its sonic signature; the tone of the guitar on every song is just magnificent and is such a unifying element of this album.  The lyrics here seem to be autobiographical, talking about drinking and going home and hearing the “woo” girls walking by in a way that reminds me of “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements—not quite as sad and despondent as that song but still carrying that element of melancholy over a life spent wasted in bars.  The following song, “Rock and Roll Blowout”, tells the story of a young boy and his friends in some small rural town riding their bikes downtown to see a (fictional) local band Scotty and the Reacharounds that seems poised to make it to the big times, only to be told that the band had broken up.  This is a standout track to me, evoking the most touching nostalgic elements of worshipping older bands and the desolation that ensues when they break up.  Sonically the song is excellent too, starting with the swirling, country-esque guitar but eventually evolving into yet another crisp set of power chords accentuated by heavy cowbell by the drummer.  Lead singer Zach Boddicker’s vocals here seem impassioned and heartfelt; whether this song is actually true or not, his conviction sells the emotional impact very effectively.  Boddicker’s vocals generally remind me of the slightly straining, slightly off-key vocals of Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, only with more of a western twang.

In contrast, the next song, “The Breaks”, is slow and bluesy and reminds me of “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix crossed with some of the more introspective work of Stevie Ray Vaughn.  This ability to slow things up but maintain the emotionality is something else that reminds me of the Replacements too, who could roar through “Left of the Dial” and screech to a halt in a song like “Here Comes a Regular” without losing the listener.  “Rubber City Girl” slows down the tempo even more but again this doesn’t come at any cost, and this song, with its strange, fractured lyrics and country guitar flourishes is one I can envision slow dancing to in some beer-soaked bar.

“Tires in a Landfill” ramps the energy back up, a rocking rave-up with a strange but catchy chorus:  “Like tires in a landfill I will rise again” with another nifty guitar-and-cowbell section as well.  “Orbison Eyes”, with its slashing chords and galloping rhythm and soaring chorus, was the song that first attracted me to this group when I found it on YouTube, and it’s still one of my top favorites.  The guitar work here is super-top-notch, especially the big post-chorus flourishes and the soaring solo.  This song captures the very best elements of the Meat Puppets sound but in a way that’s incredibly unique and not derivative in the slightest.  “Scratch and Dent Man” and “What’s Too Dumb To Be Said” are two more mellow songs but again the guitar tone on both  is incredible and keeps these songs from ever being boring.  “Dumb” again has snatches of autobiographical detail about starting out playing in cover bands but still sticking with the songwriting to reach for something better.  “The Project” starts with some weird deep guitar chords but develops into a catchy country-fried rocker while “Walk of Shame” is fast and furious while still retaining most of those twangy, country elements of “Project”, and “You Didn’t Have To Do That” ends things off with some psychedelic, bluesy guitar work over lyrics that describe pride in their rural roots.

In May of 2012 4H Royalty released their second album, Where UFOs Go To Die, and if anything it’s even better than their debut.  “Accordion Bus”,  is another fractured tale that describes talking to strange homeless women on the bus, and is another fantastic track, catchy, funny, and retaining the magnificent guitar work and tone (and cowbell!) of the previous album.  But it’s the second track, “Statutes of Limitation”, that’s one of my favorites by this amazing band—the guitar intro is absolutely amazing, the way it meshes with the driving rhythm set down by drummer Rob Buehler and bassist Andrew Porter before soaring into majestic high, bluesy notes that settle back down into the strumming drive of the rhythm.  The lyrics seem to tell the tale of a woman who is trying to confess her infidelity to the singer, who is letting her off the hook by invoking the “statutes of limitation”—presumably that her indiscretion happened in the past and can and should remain in the past.  A magnificent song, both musically and lyrically.  “The Black Hornet Rides Again” is a wild, country instrumental, and it and the subsequent song “The Blind Draw” remind me of the desert-fried country psychedelia the Meat Puppets on albums like Up On the Sun.  “Fall Off the Face of the World With Me” is slow and thoughtful, another weird (autobiographical?) tale of sitting on top of the water tower watching the Harvest Days festival and parade talking about leaving the stifling confines of the small town with his girlfriend (who may or may not love him).  “Itchy Blood” is about a man who sends a letter to a woman for whom he once, and for whom he still, has feelings (the “itchy blood” of the title). 

“Virtues, Spices and Liquors” is another of my very favorite songs by 4H Royalty, a magnificent high lonesome song about the lures of home and old friends and nakedly autobiographical in tone.  This song comes the closest to contemporary country in its sound, and for once I don’t mean that as a rebuke:  I can easily see any current male Nashville covering this (and probably ruining it) because of its excellent balance of rocking drive and sweet country elements.  This is really a magnificent song, with one of the best choruses ever:
Mercy, sherry, sage and rosemary
Jasmine brandy and hope
Return me to sender when I start to remember
All the virtues, spices, and liquors of home

“Soon Enough” is one of the more bitter songs on the album, documenting the narrator’s encounter with a woman he once loved and how he now doesn’t want to see her again.  The guitar solo again evokes the best, bluesy elements of Jimi Hendrix (or even of the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  The title song is soft and quiet and the slight slide guitar elements give it an eerily Western vibe, like driving past Area 51 in the wide open New Mexico desert.

I would love to see this amazing local band in concert, but unfortunately they’re only playing sporadic gigs in the coming months and most of those are not that close to my hometown.  Still, they’ve become one of my very favorite bands and I love their sound.

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