The Midwest has remained a reliable hotbed of new bands creating straight-up rock 'n roll for every generation of music fans since the form's quick demise was prophesied back in the 1950s. Some wags on either coast would probably say that's because we're reliably behind the times, but I would argue it's because the flyover states continue to see the value of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums-yellin' sonic approach beyond the times it's trendy. Either way, Midwestern rock has been a constantly rolling wave of music that may occasionally crest when garage rock comes to the fore (White Stripes?) but never drains completely away to sea.
One of the longer-lived current Midwestern rock bands is Cincinnati-hailing Third Man Records label.
The Four Stars title is depicted graphically, as on a review. While it may seem presumptuous to name a new record that way, the Greenhornes are more than up to the challenge, unleashing their most accomplished and diverse-sounding record yet. The pop sheen of parts of 2003's East Grand Blues, their last new release, is continued here as if the group didn't take an eight-year break. Those final 2000s recordings were also made with the current line-up, consisting of the core trio of singer/guitarist Craig Fox, bassist/singer Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler. On Four Stars, they get some extra help on keyboards from Andrew Highley (who also fills that role for live shows), and a bit of production assistance from Lawrence and Keeler's Raconteurs bandmate Brendan Benson.
The thing that strikes me most about this album, right off the bat, is that the group's prior Yardbirds rave-ups and Animals blues touchstones seem to have shifted to slightly more controlled tempos and a Kinks-y melodic sensibility (and hard rock edge). Heck, "Get Me Out of Here" could probably be included on a dub of Arthur as a lost bonus track and fool a lot of people. Also striking is that the songs are all killer -- after a few listens this album really takes hold as their best yet, start to finish. Overall it's not as garage-y as Dual Mono, but it doesn't need to be with songwriting this strong, from the crunchy stomp of "Saying Goodbye" to the softy-loudy "Go Tell Henry' or the freakbeat of "Cave Drawings."
Packaged in a fancy die-cut gatefold, Four Stars features sleeve notes by director Jim Jarmusch and art by drummer Keeler and Miles Johnson. One minor complaint I have with the package is that the vinyl itself sounds a bit bassy and flat on headphones at low levels, but cranking it up improves the sound a lot. I would guess it's mixed that way intentionally for maximum warm and fuzzy impact over loud speakers, and there ain't nothing wrong with that. Also, according to Third Man, the LP is supposed to come with a digital download code; this copy didn't, but it's possible that's only for copies purchased directly from the label.
The Greenhornes are back out on tour in support of Four Stars and will hit the High Noon Saloon for a show on Sunday, March 27. Plan to get there by the 8 p.m. showtime for the openers, Wisconsin's own So So Radio and Texas retro-rockers Hacienda. For more on So So Radio, here's a review of a track from their debut disc Dustcovers. I also just had a chance to hear a digital version of Hacienda's last disc from about a year back, Big Red and Barbacoa, and I'll be tracking down a vinyl version at the show if possible. Hacienda combines the reverbed-out guitar twang plus handclaps sound of Duane Eddy with the pop moves of pre-wigout Beach Boys and just a bit of border rock -- not a sound one runs across every day. They do get (jealous) demerit points for covering the Everly Brothers' "You're My Girl" before any of my bands could get to it, though. (Third Man Records, 2010)