There are two ways you could describe Brokedown Hustlers’ latest LP, “Baptized in Sin.” 1) It’s a fantastically whimsical bluegrass collection that evokes the punk rock attitude and sometimes veers into being annoying because of its almost-exploitive celebration of Southern culture. Or 2) It’s a fantastically whimsical bluegrass collection that evokes the punk rock attitude and sometimes veers into being annoying because of its almost-exploitive celebration of Southern culture.
Confused? Don’t be. The proof is in the performance, and these nine songs combine to be a crash-course in contradiction. What makes this Hagerstown-by-way-of-North-Carolina group so polarizing is how little attention they pay to their natural talent. In fact, the majority of “Baptized In Sin” is overshadowed by its insistence on being as lewd as possible. Forget the fiddle prowess. Forget the countrified vocals. Forget the marvelous mandolin. Forget the word “forget” — these guys clearly prefer a different kind of f-word, and it’s one that’s not allowed to be published in this newspaper.
But that’s OK. Or, well, kind of. Take “But I’m Dry,” for instance. August West’s Southern-accented vocals are trumped by the guitar and mandolin solos between verses that run seamlessly within the track’s fabric. Not once do they appear sloppy or out of place, and that can be a hard thing to do when tackling this type of music. The performance itself evokes a hot summer night around a campfire with a group of musicians and a ton of moonshine.
“Never Comin Back,” meanwhile, showcases Tennessee Jed’s talents, and in an odd way, upstages West’s vocal abilities that appear throughout most of the rest of the release. All told, Jed’s voice is more haunting than its contemporary, and his way around a country music sound simply feels more authentic than the rest of his band (according to the record, he recorded all the parts on “Never Comin Back”). The move is a fairly immediate reminder of how patronizing West’s goofy Southern drawl can appear.
In fact, such is a big reason why “Baptized in Sin” suffers when it does, and it’s also why these guys sometimes come off as an annoyingly contradictory clich?. “Blackedoutwasted” begins promisingly with its dramatic fiddle and quick plucking, but once the tale of drunken mishaps overtakes the lazy bluegrass, the entire track loses a sense of maturity that typically allows other songs in the genre an element of poignancy. “The night before Christmas, I was blacked-out wasted/ Smoked a thousand dollars/ Probably should have saved it/ I can smell the poor house/ Mother– I can taste it,” West sings and suddenly, the song seems more silly than sincere.
The worst comes in the form of “Small Brain, Big Mouth,” a striking departure from the rest of the record that can be labeled as nothing more than a bad attempt at a pop song. It’s filthy to the point of ridicule and very literally stupid. The thing sounds like a bunch of drunk dudes hanging out at 4 in the morning, writing a song they know they could never take seriously. Why this would actually be thrown on an official release isn’t just deplorable — it’s embarrassing.
All is almost forgiven with the slowed-down “Yellow Roses,” a memorable pseudo-ballad that paints a vivid portrait of a special kind of sadness. West’s “I wear my heart like the wine stains on my sleeve” refrain is a statement that surprisingly proves how sensitive — and good — this quartet can get whenever it trades in its tirades for tenderness. The Avett Brothers, these guys are not, though to think they are a drunk second cousin of the North Carolina newgrass stalwarts isn’t the worst thing in the world, either.
Speaking of which, trying to pigeonhole Brokedown Hustlers and “Baptized in Sin” isn’t a particularly easy thing to do. A quick look online reveals that these guys fancy themselves akin to Hank Williams or Old Crow Medicine show, but it’s hard to imagine any of those guys being nearly as wonky as this collection can be. Under the genre category, they lay claim to things called “Brokedown Country” and “Gutshot Gospel,” two categorizations that simultaneously explain nothing, yet reveal everything. It’s a microcosm of what Brokedown Hustlers are: a fantastically whimsical bluegrass group that evokes the punk rock attitude and sometimes veers into being annoying because of their almost-exploitive celebration of Southern culture.
For better or for worse.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **