The Band of Heathens aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re just enjoying a fine coastal roadtrip. The songs are catchy, the production is spot on, and the album’s sunny optimism is a breath of crisp air
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If the Band of Heathens were a drink, it would be a tequila sunrise. Because they have the warm Cali-rock sunniness of orange juice, the harder-edge knock of tequila, the approachable sweetness of grenadine syrup and because they take a fair few cues from The Eagles in their twanging guitars and multi-layered harmonies. Their latest release, ‘Duende’ (Spanish for either passion or goblin apparently) is no exception, plundering all pages of the Great American Songbook to deliver a record than strides right across the spectrum.
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Most of the record walks the line between upbeat alternative rock and radio country stylings. First track ‘All I’m Asking’ is the perfect middle ground; a cheerful shuffle-blues fuzzfest with a twinkling piano and the soulful soaring of vocalist Ed Jurdi. It also introduces us to the dynamic basswork of Scott Davis, channelling The Grateful Dead to give the record a light-hearted bounciness. It sounds like The Black Keys if they’d listened to more T. Rex as children, and it’s a relentless earworm of an opener.
From then on it’s a pleasant, green-tinted stroll through the fields of Americana, dallying in different styles as it goes. ‘Last Minute Man’ is a country-folk anthem of the old school, best suited to being strummed from a stage made of haybales. ‘Trouble Came Early’ is the rockiest track, ripped from the hog-riding AOR glory days of Bob Seger or Joe Cocker. And ‘Daddy Longlegs’ is an unabashed gritty-soul track from the beer-drenched floorboards of San Francisco’s dives.
As you might expect from a band originally formed of three singer/songwriters, the lyrics are consistently solid. Simplistic when they need to be, sometimes poetically cryptic and other times razor sharp (as on flirtatious tease ‘Sugar Queen’). But the album’s crown jewels are the euphoric harmonies that drift through virtually every track. Jurdi and fellow singer/songwriter Gordy Quist interlock their vocals like they were bred to go together, joined by the voices of their bandmates and gospel-style back-ups reminiscent of old Motown records. They reach their zenith for the final track, the stoned-out beach-side breezer ‘Green Grass of California’ (which, for the avoidance of doubt, has nothing to do with the Golden State’s luscious lawns). With that sliding guitar and those easy-flowing harmonies, it is everything short of a passionate love letter to Glenn Frey.
There’s no denying that ‘Duende’ is not an album that’ll revolutionise. It is an album made of loving pastiches and time-honoured styles. But what’s beautiful is that it knows it, and it is comfortable. The Band of Heathens aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re just enjoying a fine coastal roadtrip. The songs are catchy, the production is spot on, and the album’s sunny optimism is a breath of crisp air in an increasingly downbeat soundscape. If you’d rather banish the misery than revel in it, and you’re worn out with Van Morrison, Nathaniel Rateliff and Counting Crows, then perhaps ‘Duende’ is the way to start 2017 right.