Sunday Morning Record or Afternoon Delight?
I once worked with a project manager named Jake, who was a nice enough guy. Nice enough that, upon finding out that I collected vinyl, decided to lend me some records that he had collected throughout the years that I could listen to. It was a favor from one vinyl purist to another—that kind of thing—and a way to break the ice between two new workers at the same job. It was a great gesture—I’d never share my vinyl pile, even to this day, for fear of it getting scratched—and for a few weeks I was in possession of a few Jimi Hendrix bootlegs and a couple of, dare I say?, Supertramp albums. A word about the latter: when Jake presented his copies to me, he pointed to 1977’sEven In the Quietest Moments and told me that it was a real Sunday morning record. I only wound up listening to the album once, so I might not be the most qualified to talk about that particular disc, but my recollections of listening to it was that Jake might have been right: there was a real soulful quality to the album that stood out, and I could kind of see where he was going with labeling it as something to listen to on the morning of the Lord’s day of rest. Anyhow, it was a great thing to do on his part, and I’m saddened in many respects that I no longer work with the guy. I’d love to borrow some of those records again. Maybe even own some of them.
This brings us to the new Band of Heathens record, which comes right out and proclaims itself in the title to be a real Sunday Morning Record—the sort of thing you might listen to with the sound of church bells tolling in the distance. I’m satisfied to note that the title is, in many respects, accurate, as this is a relatively lush and hush album of scaled down tunes. And it couldn’t have come at a more tumultuous time in the Band of Heathens’ discography. Vocalist and guitarist Colin Brooks left the outfit in 2011, and bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman quickly followed Brooks out the revolving door. That left remaining bandmates Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist having to fill a void to make the record that turned out to be the one in question up for review here. But you listen to the album and have to wonder if there was such a great upheaval in the band: the songs generally come across as being peaceful and easy, and there’s a real Ozark Mountain Daredevils vibe to the proceedings. While the latter may have had their “Jackie Blue”, the former, on this disc, cough up the outstanding “Caroline Williams”. So there’s that. And, yes, the Band of Heathens have, on this outing, earned comparisons to the Band, squarely, in other corners of music criticism. And you can see where other writers are going by drawing that line. While nothing comes close to the grandstanding of “The Weight” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, there’s a vibe that’s squarely late ‘60s and early ‘70s country-rock (if not farther along) to be had here.
But insofar as this is a Sunday Morning Record, it really works well no matter what time of the day you put it on. While it comes startlingly out of the gate with “Shotgun”, a song that offers shifting tempos that liken it to the musical equivalent of sands blowing around, and the aforementioned “Caroline Williams”, which is an all-around great deep-fried tune, the album really picks up steam somewhere around the midway point. “Since I’ve Been Home”, all three minutes and four seconds of it, might be the very best thing to be found on the album. It’s a sparse acoustic guitar ballad filled with dollops of melancholy and longing, and burrows itself deep inside the ear. Reserve this for the nighttime and the long dark tea time of the soul, if you must. “The Same Picture” with its plucked guitar notes and lavishly harmonized vocals, is another relative stunner; it comes across as outright jazzy and offers a left curve in the proceedings.
That’s not to say, alas, that the album doesn’t have its share of shortcomings. “One More Trip” feels like it could have been stolen from the Eagles’ songbook, which is delusory depending on your point of view (and I happen to think that the Eagles only had a handful of truly great material), and sometimes the lyrics come across as being too crude for their own good. “I Miss My Life” opens with the following cringe worthy bleating: “Everybody’s talking ‘bout / How they just can do without / They don’t know their ass / From a hole in the ground.” And songs like “Shake the Foundation” feel rather rote and lethargic.
Still, despite all of this, when you take the album as a whole, the lumps more or less smooth themselves out and what you’re left with is a record that you can take on either a Sunday morning or anytime else, really. Some might chafe at the soft rock strains that Jurdi, Quist et al have hammered out here, but for those willing and ready to go along for the ride, Sunday Morning Record has a number of tunes that are sweetly hummable and worthy of visitation. With final song, the six-minute “Texas”, the band even gives a shout-out to their home (they originated in Austin: “But I’ve never wanted to leave this town / Oh, Austin’s been a friend of mine / Texas we’re out of time,” goes part of the chorus), which feels like a brilliant summation of their roots.
And roots rock are where one might be tempted to file this record. It’s a countrified album in the best sense of what was done in the mid-‘70s with records such as It’ll Shine When It Shines to a certain extent, just with more emphasis on the country end of the pop spectrum. Still, there are enough gems to be found here that, while not the sort of thing that might be readily apparent on anyone’s radio dial, hit the mark. This is a disc during which you can simply sit back and let yourself glide away into a state of relaxation, so laid back are its general vibes. Which, to put it another way, is the sort of thing that a Supertramp-loving former co-worker of mine might have been quite enamored by. Sunday Morning Record is, quite easily, a record that lives up to its own promotional billing and then some. I hear the church bells chiming in the background every time I listen to this one, and that should tell you a thing or two.