Frog Holler’s Haywire

cover art for HaywireMy biggest problem in writing this review of Frog Holler’s excellent new album is how to classify their music. “Alt-country” has become so ubiquitous a tag as to be virtually meaningless these days. And it’s too bad one even has to label it, but perhaps countrified alternative rock comes closest. They call it “indie/Americana” in their press release.

Haywire is the Reading, Pennsylvania, band’s fifth CD, following close on the heels of 2005’s EP The High Highs and the Low Lows. As with every one of those albums since their 1998 debut, Haywire is an improvement over its predecessors; this time both sonically and musically. Frontman Darren Schlappich spent more time working out arrangements with drummer Daniel Bower and bassist Josh Sceurman, before going into the studio with the rest of the band and producer Brian McTear. The result is a full, rich “rock” sound, fully fleshed-out songs and consistently interesting production.

The band really gels as an ensemble behind that rhythm section and Schlappich’s lonesome baritone vocals. The twin-guitar attack of John Kilgore and Todd Bartolo propels the songs in all kinds of interesting directions, while Mike Lavdanski’s banjo and accordion – and Bartolo’s frequent keening lap steel – add lots of color. Even more variety comes from occasional touches like Kilgore’s soulful organ and Scott White’s violin on “Pepper & Salt,” and vocal harmonies from engineer Amy Morrissey on two tracks.

Schlappich’s songwriting, always interesting, has matured impressively, to the point that he can pull off songs like “On Winter Blues” and “Haywire,” both of which can be read as either personal ruminations on the nature of love and faith, or political commentary on the current divided state of the union.

There’s no such use of metaphor on the straightforwardly political “Ben Franklin’s Blues,” with its call to arms from the birthplace of liberty, “We’d rather be free than tucked in at night.”

Other high points are the bluegrass-influenced “Terms and Conditions;” the richly poetic “Rat Race,” with alternating slow and mid-tempo sections; and the bluesy Stones-like swagger of “Sight Unseen.” Cowbell and banjo, a great combination!

With Haywire Frog Holler stands poised to break out from its status as a regional “cult” band onto a larger stage. But regardless of whether it’s ever recognized by the larger world, this is a great band making first-rank Americana music.

(ZoBird, 2006)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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