BUILDING ON THE PAST The Molenes.
Roots music is a big tent. The Molenes have poked their noses into just about every corner of it over the course of their first two records, trying out everything from bluegrass to rockabilly and moving from ripping twanged-out guitar solos to more refined acoustic finger-picking.
For their third disc, Good Times Comin', they embrace that twang more tightly, especially featuring pedal-steel player Bruce Derr, who was more of an invited guest the last time around. Most importantly, frontman Dave Hunter now has the foil and counterpart he's seemed to have been searching for on the first two discs.
These guys just seem to be having a blast, trading off licks like two world-class tennis players lithely volleying. "Hot Damn" is an old-school Texas swing piece that could have been written by Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis when they were first barnstorming the south. This is the kind of thing that could be utterly cornball without real-deal chops, but this piece is perfectly authentic — Hunter and Derr are very, very good players. Sometimes, it's that simple.
But, yeah, it's still a little corny, with lines about "my ramblin' shoes" and a gal who "messed around, all over town." The Molenes have never been overly cynical or ironic, but this record is as straight-ahead as they've been — they even have a song called "Straight Ahead," which is one of two poppier country tunes here: "come on missy, jump inside/Me and you are overdue to take that long ride."
If this album is defined by anything, separates itself from your standard genre piece, it's the low-end, the way Dave Hunter can make his electric guitar snarl and bite like that junkyard dog from Lean on Me. It fires up the beginning of album-opening "Blood and Bone" and rips through the tracks that follow, supported by swaggering Andrew Russell bass lines and Zach Field drums that are most distinguished by the snare, a thump like a punch to the gut.
The record also just sounds crisp, thanks to a nuanced mix from Paul Q. Kolderie (Uncle Tupelo), whether it's that low-end electric guitar growl or a pretty acoustic guitar open like the one on "Miracle Cure," the other poppy tune, where Hunter posits, "saints and apostles, used to blacken the moon at my birth/Did you ever see, such a miserable, misbegotten wretch, walk the face of this earth?"
And there's a fair amount of that kind of imagery here, the hard-life staple of country music for as long as people have been going down the road feeling bad. The protagonist here has "aches in place I can't name." You might suspect these guys have smiles on their faces while they detail these tales of woe, but they're also clearly paying homage to tradition. For roots fans, it's cool to hear them sing about old-time radio while mimicking the '60s pop-country sound in "Rockin' Monophonic;" Hunter's love of music history is palpable.
It's fun, too, to hear them take Merle Travis one better by moving his "Nine Pound Hammer" along a notch with the "Ten Pound Hammer," which is "gonna know a hole through to the souls below." Hunter and Derr positively blow the solo up here.