Monday, August 15, 2022

Review: Whiskey Myers, "Tornillo"

Whiskey Myers has never been shy about letting their roots show in their music, but on their latest release, they put them on display like a piece of fine art in a museum.

Tornillo takes the listener across the landscape of American music. There is, of course, plenty of their rowdy traditional Southern rock, but they also get a little funky, take a trip to the country, roll around in the blues and even dip their toes into arena rock – albeit very twangy arena rock.

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed with the band’s 2019 eponymous album2019 eponymous album, which was, at times, a little too much rock and not enough Southern. But the lead single from Tornillo, “John Wayne,” immediately announced that while we’d see a few new tricks with this latest evolution of Whiskey Myers, it would be well grounded in where they come from. The song opens with a funky, thumping bass line from Jamey Gleaves before vocalist Cody Cannon joins in on harmonica, kicking off a Southern groover with plenty of flash from the horns and female backing vocals that are both new touches.

I’m still not really sure what the song has to do with the Duke, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a rollicking good time only made better by the recently released video which finds the band feuding with Danny Trejo and paying tribute to ZZ Top with their costumes and dance moves.

From there, we get a gritty Southern rocker in “Antioch.” Dark storytelling has always been a hallmark of Whiskey Myers’ sound, going back to “Broken Window Serenade” from the 2011 album Firewater. “Antioch” fills that bill here, following the story of a young man who grows up in an abusive household. We watch him become confused about his role in life and angry at his father before returning home from war and ending the story in really the only way it could.

As usual, there are heart-wrenching songs like “For the Kids,” which finds the subject of the song pleading with his wife to stay together a few more years for the kids, and “maybe they won’t turn out the way we did.” It’s a solid, if fairly depressing Southern rock ballad.

Even more compelling in that vein, though, is album closer “Heart of Stone,” a subdued and quiet tune compared to the bombast found in other places on Tornillo. The soft, barren musical landscape reminds me of a latter-day Johnny Cash ballad. Cannon’s soulful vocals put a little smoother edge on things than Cash would have, but they’re still just as impactful.

While the dark songs are some of Whiskey Myers’ most powerful, Tornillo is certainly not all about the dark side. Take, for example, “Feet’s.” While the grammar in the title of the song sets my editor’s teeth on edge, it’s a fun romp straight out of the Lynyrd Skynyrd songbook. It would have been right at home on one of their 1970s records, and it’s one of several nods to the Southern rock legends here. Another comes in “Other Side,” that aforementioned arena rock influenced tune, which features a lyrical nod to “Simple Man.”

Continuing the fun theme is country rocker “Mission to Mars” which finds Cody Cannon lamenting about the state of the modern world and the “rich folks talking about going to outer space.” He decides, of course, to start his own space mission with a little bit of herbal aid from back in the woods.

A more serious lament of the current state of things comes on “Whole World Gone Crazy,” where guitarist John Jeffers takes over the vocal duties. (It’s one of two Jeffers songs on the record.) I admit that I prefer Cannon’s vocals, but this song hits very close to home for me lyrically – and I’m sure it expresses what a lot of people are thinking about the current social and political circus.

“Whole World Gone Crazy” lays out the plight of folks who just want to be left alone and live their lives trying to deal with the daily news, and people who seem to live for arguing politics as he sings: “Me, I’m just trying to get right with the man, forgive me for my sins and what I don’t understand / I’m just a good old boy, trying to make ends meet.” There’s a little bit of humor to the song, but the underlying message, I’m sure, will ring true for many folks.

Oh, and I mentioned blues, didn’t I? That would be “Bad Medicine,” where the Texas band puts another influence on display. It’s a straight-up Stevie Ray Vaughan-style blues rocker complete with a down-and-dirty groove and some hot guitar licks.

And that brings me, finally, to the highlight of Tornillo – the one song that would have made it worth the price of the whole album, even if the other 11 weren’t as awesome as they are, and that’s “The Wolf.” I’ve been wanting to hear the full version of the song since I stumbled across a YouTube video of Cannon playing it acoustic from earlier in the year. The full band version did not disappoint.

“The Wolf” starts with a mean fingerpicked guitar lick before the horns kick in, creating a dramatic atmosphere. Cannon delivers rapid-fire lyrics telling the tale of a man willing to do whatever it takes to survive and support his family. Then there’s the roughly two-minute Southern rock jam session that closes the song out – reminiscent, though I’m reluctant to make the comparison, of the closing jam of “Freebird.” The whole tune just drips bad-assery, and it’s quite possibly my favorite song in a year that’s had an embarrassment of musical riches for me.

I’ve always considered 2014’s Early Morning Shakes to be the pinnacle of Whiskey Myers’ musical prowess, but Tornillo gives that album a solid run for its money. Like Early Morning Shakes, this one will have few skips, but Tornillo might actually have more reach-over-and-crank-the-volume songs.

The heyday of Southern rock may be gone, but Whiskey Myers proves once again that it’s definitely still alive and kicking like a mule. Tornillo just further cements the fact that these guys deserve to be in the conversation with the biggest names in the genre.

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