By: Dennis Cook
With an assured hop, Hot Buttered Rum's latest hooks an arm around you with an "away we go" gusto. There's a lover's energy to Limbs Akimbo (released September 8) that exudes passionate engagement with the craft of music making. These are folks simply in thrall to the idea of writing wonderful songs – the sort of humanizing ditties that get us through, actually – and playing them with joy, sophistication and a palpable reach that stretches inward and outward. Once tagged a newgrass act, HBR neatly sidesteps expectations here, advancing with arms and minds open wide.
Always a likeable bunch, Butter amps up their charm quotient significantly with spot-on party starters "Beneath The Blossoms" and "Two Loose Cannons," rolling with confident swagger to new-ish drummer Matt Butler (Everyone Orchestra), who resides in the muscular of these tunes without needing to flex unduly, lifting and pulling without overpowering the delicacies inherent to HBR's string core. While some fans of the band's pre-drum sound have expressed hesitancy about Butler's addition, these ears find nothing but good in his presence, which actually frees up some of the most carefree, flavorful playing ever from the others. With some of the rhythm concerns off their backs, Erik Yates (vocals, banjo, flute, sax, resophonic guitar), Nat Keefe (vocals, guitar), Aaron Redner (vocals, fiddle, mandolin) and even bassist Bryan Horne simply fly on their instruments, loosened up by the shift in perspective and ready for adventure.
The songwriting throughout is their best to date. Each piece feels honed (but not too honed), smooth as river rocks worked gently, shaped by time and shifting tides. There's still a few solid yucks ("Sexy Bakery Girl," "Honkeytonk Tequila") but there's pleasant bittersweetness creeping into the verses. As the rings gather around their trunk, HBR has grown more solid, more enduring in character, and wistful airs like "Something New" and "Queen Elizabeth" exhibit positive maturity, with "Elizabeth" sounding like Dylan on a good day in 1975 and "Something New" capturing some of Jackson Browne's tough melancholy. This growth extends to the interwoven playing of the ensemble and winning guests like Jackie Greene, Zach Gill (ALO), Nicki Bluhm, percussionist Perry Sayoma Quarshie and The Mother Hips' Tim Bluhm, who produced Limbs Akimbo with an unobtrusive, musician sensitive ear that presents a nuanced crystallization of Hot Buttered Rum at their best.
And there's the matter of the last two tracks, "Summertime Gal" and "Limbs Akimbo," which introduce a whole new sonic palette to their studio side. "Gal" condenses the band's uncanny ability to mix twang with trippiness in concert, a psychedelic bent that harks back to largely unheralded innovators Goose Creek Symphony. When "Summertime Gal" opens up a few minutes in, unleashing seriously funky bass and a collective chatter that'll make you strut like Travolta getting ready on a Saturday night, it's almost enough to make you forget where the song started, and when it comes back around again one can't help but be impressed. Closing with the sprightly, African scented title cut, a Nat Keefe/Zach Gill co-write, cleanly puts the kibosh on Hot Buttered being a bluegrass unit once and for all. Yes, mountain music and what Flatt & Scruggs wrought is in the mix but their musical minds leap continents now, freely grabbing bits of Brazilian Tropicalismo and Ghanaian highlife as easily as they snatch the cash off the barrelhead. As the title tune celebrates, this is a chance to grow and this band is shooting up like a happy weed in bright sunlight.
JamBase | Loose 'n' Breezy
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