Hucklebuck are charming. They also owe a hell of a lot to Tom Petty. The dearly departed heartbreaker made a career — and most would say legend — out of keeping things simple by relying heavily on good storytelling, a tight band and the type of Southern Rock ethos that allowed his relate-ability to transcend. You know the characters in Tom Petty songs. And if you have any idea what a D chord is, chances are you could even play a good portion of them yourself.
That type of approach toward songwriting is all over the Hucklebuck’s latest, aptly titled LP, “Number 2.” Rooted in twang, predictability and a specific blend of heartsickness to which most anyone who’s ever been through a breakup can relate, these songs might not become your best friend, but they most certainly will become one of your most reliable companions. Or in other words, two listens is actually one more than you’ll need to memorize the words to these choruses.
Opener “Turdle” proves as much. “I’m a son of a bitch/For breakin’ your heart/But I had an itch/For a brand new start,” the chorus asserts in humble-yet-confident fashion. When recited over the same gritty bubblegum that originated somewhere between Gainesville and Tallahassee, it’s not only believable, it’s sympathetic. Even if this guy did mess stuff up with his romantic interest, a song like this suggests he more than deserves another shot. Rarely do you find such a winning combination of sincerity and affability in local music.
It keeps going with “Middle Class Man.” Announcing itself with a dirty group vocal, an acoustic guitar and finger snaps, it ultimately settles into the band’s trademark uptempo groove before developing into a blue collar composition. As a whole, it embodies Hucklebuck’s aesthetic better than anything else the band offers: quirky, modest and fun. And even if you find the structure a little too obvious, check the chorus, where the call-and-response vocals grant the band a compelling dynamic it should use more often than it does.
Equally as compelling is how tenacious these guys are when it comes to sticking to what they know best. “Workin’” feels so simple, yet so profound with its rundown of a working-class man’s everyday life. “If I had 10 cents for every time I took off a day, I’d be minus a dime” is a pretty great line, yet what makes it even more memorable are the vague backing harmonies that give the production warmth. The way they tell it, there isn’t a single person in all of Western Maryland that can’t relate with at least a line or two from this song and that’s a laudable feat to achieve. Not only do they achieve it, but they make it look easy.
Actually, they probably make it look too easy. If there’s a fatal flaw surrounding these 12 songs it’s that … well … there’s 12 of them. While these guys have mastered what they do, what they do doesn’t necessarily lend itself to long-form listening. After a while, the tracks here begin to run into each other and the formula becomes tired. What made Petty, clearly their biggest influence, legendary, was his ability to change things up. “Breakdown” was groovy; “American Girl” was college rock.
Unfortunately, nothing here distinguishes itself in such ways. “Fayngr” uses the same country licks that “Have Another Round” features while “Red Alert” and “Union Boys” not only swing similarly, but they also ease into themselves with an anticipated acoustic guitar pattern. This isn’t to say that a full-length would be a bad idea for Hucklebuck; it’s just to say that if they want to go that route, they should consider some versatility moving forward. The 4/4 time signatures and the clean electric boogie guitars can only take you so far.
But then you hear the sentimentality of “The Losers” and you realize all is not lost. Sounding not unlike something that could have been on most Hootie & The Blowfish records, it’s a fine showcase for how imperative vocal harmonies are to this band’s equation. The sound is Wilburys-esque and that’s not a statement to be taken lightly. Plus, “Quarter To May” has enough rock in it to make anything that came out of Seattle in the mid 1990s proud. These guys can play in the intersection between grunge and indie rock well enough to do it more frequently than they try to do it currently.
Even so, there’s no denying what they do best. And what Hucklebuck does best is straight-forward, easy-peasy southern rock. In a lot of ways, “Number 2” is the most pertinent example of how far sticking to what you do well can take you. In fewer ways, however, it’s also a reminder of how valuable the art of being flexible can actually be. Still, these 12 songs should more than satisfy those who know what they’re getting. It also doesn’t hurt that what they’re getting is doused with charm.
Suffice to say, Petty just might be proud.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***