[COUNTRY ROCK] When I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House broke up in 2006, frontman Michael Dean Damron had already started on a new journey as a singer-songwriter. He was learning to craft his music without the safety net of a big, sweaty, shit-kicking country rock band behind him; learning to write songs a more personal way. Where Sonofabitch spent the majority of its time railing against hypocrisy, the religious right and plain old assholes, Damron’s solo material looked inward.
This recently reunited incarnation of Sonofabitch learns well from Damron’s soul-searching. On The Sounds of Dying, the band replaces its blustery “fuck-you songs” with more calculated, personal and mournful tunes, like the churning, five-minute “Postcards and Apologies” and the confessional love song “Montana.” Damron is taking his songwriting more seriously than ever—with inspiration from Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt—and it shows.
Sonofabitch has matured musically, too. Though the disc’s chugging rock tunes (clumped together in the first half of the album) show slightly less evidence of growth than the ballads, the rawk is more balanced in its assault than on the band’s previous records. “Bad Days Ahead” uses harmonica as call-and-response punctuation, while road-weary album standout “Hotter Hell” features gorgeous slide guitar work from Drag the River’s Casey Prestwood.
It’s on “Hotter Hell” that a gravelly Damron sings that there “ain’t no rest for a rock ’n’ roll man like me.” Perhaps not, but a temporary hiatus worked wonders for his band. CASEY JARMAN.
[COUNTRY FEEDBACK] Hillstomp is trying to be something it’s not. The problem is not simply that the roadhouse blues-punk duo’s second studio album feigns a familiar bucket-of-nails rustic misery, but that its production dilutes the concentrated moonshine of the band’s famously raucous live shows. Henry Kammerer and John Johnson’s megaphone vocal effect, which distorts the singers until they seem to be emerging from some diabolical hi-fi, is probably supposed to echo the growling of Tom Waits or Otis Taylor, but in this crisp context it is difficult to shake an association with the grittier, less successful efforts of Ben Harper.
More troublingly, the lyrics on Darker the Night attempt to reveal Hillstomp’s bleaker side, resulting in songs like the title track, in which the narrator contemplates suicide with the backing of a gospel choir. This meditation is not wholly convincing. Likewise, the murder ballad “Cold Dark Woods” is inappropriately sanguine: “Riverside where I took her life/ It’s all right.” No, you didn’t, and no, it’s not.
And yet the banjo fingerwork on this album, when not drowned in electric buzz, is all first-rate, and the arrangements of traditional numbers are very satisfying—especially “The Old Plank Road,” with its eternally disingenuous promise, “Won’t get drunk no more.” When the band abandons the pretense of rural suffering, and plays with authentic exuberance, Hillstomp has no trouble picking. It could allow itself more grinning. AARON MESH.
SEE IT: Sonofabitch plays Dante’s on Saturday, June 19, with Drag the River and Dry County Crooks. $11 advance, $12 day of show. 9:30 pm. 21+. Hillstomp plays Wonder Ballroom on Friday, June 18, with Yogoman Burning Band and Sassparilla. $10. 9 pm. All ages.