Though they hail from Austin, Texas, the Band of Heathens -- essentially the missing link between The Black Crowes and the Eagles -- sound more 1970s Southern California on their latest release, "Sunday Morning Record." Specifically Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills between 1973-75, when Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne were creating their own style of music that would blur the lines between pop, rock and country.
But "Sunday Morning" is no slavish mimic; it's the best type of retro: fresh and familiar at the same time. The band will showcase the new material, released in September, on Saturday when they return to Bakersfield to play Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
The first album released since the departure of founding member Colin Brooks, bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman, "Sunday Morning," understandably, features a different direction and sound. Gone is some of the funky grit, but in its place, remaining members Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist have emphasized clean tones and contemplation over fuzz (not totally, though; "Shake the Foundations" is so boldly fuzzy and thick that it could carpet your van).
At times each song on the album evokes a different influence: The Eagles ("Shotgun," a fun blast of 1970s Los Angeles with a "Take it to the Limit"-type ending); The Faces (the jaunty "Miss My Life"); James Taylor ("Texas"); The Band (the excellent "One More Trip"); Harry Nilsson (the gorgeous standouts "Caroline Williams" and "The Same Picture"); and even The Beatles ("Girl with Indigo Eyes" echoes the "Day in the Life" timpani/tom drum sound and vocal/chordal harmony).
Instrumentally, the production is wet and muted -- heavy on the towel-on-drumhead drum sound of the 1970s. The guitars are crisp, warm and, at times, as hauntingly pretty and ethereal as "Rumors"-era Fleetwood Mac (evidenced in the super-catchy, soulful "Records in Bed," which, if I were a radio programmer, would be put on regular rotation. Forever.).
The vocals are clear, although harmonically limited, and even when singing to a faraway love on "The Same Picture" -- the highlight of the record -- the melancholy delivery is almost playfully bittersweet.
With country music embroiled in a civil war between the new breed of pop-savvy country artists and traditionalist stalwarts, there is, oddly enough, a generation gap happening within the same generation. The legitimate balance between the past and the future is being struck by artists whose use of the past is not a calculated conceit but done out of genuine respect, and whose use of new sounds and techniques aren't overblown distractions for the sake of being cutting edge but more as embellishment -- sometimes as subtle as a caress.
Artists like the Band of Heathens, the impressive Nicki Bluhm (Linda Ronstadt, version 2.0), Ryan Bingham and their rebel outlaw counterparts Bob Wayne, Joe Buck, Hank III and Wayne "The Train" Hancock are playing some of the most exciting and satisfying country-influenced music not being played on the radio.
One thing they all have in common: None of these artists are your dad's country music, but they'll never think they're too good to listen to it -- much less insult it.
"Sunday Morning Record" is a love letter to the past and, at the same time, a postcard to the future.