‘Strange’ – Band of Heathens cast irresistible melodies

With ‘Strange,’ The Band of Heathens have created their most ambitious, ingenious and completely comfortable listening experience yet.
Jason Quigley photograph

The Band of Heathens exemplify their religion so persuasively throughout “Stranger” that nobody in their right mind could avoid falling under their spell.

These strange times with some strange people in what shouldn’t be a strange land reminded the band of the famous existential novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Principal songwriters Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist came up with their own exhilarating thoughts about it all, thoughts that demand attention no matter the position, and that are wrapped in absolutely irresistible melodies.

As they’ve progressed through 15 years, four live albums and seven from the studio, The Heathens have steadily altered their approach, from straight and gnarly Americana roots to just about anything bent in any which way. Last time they recorded, in 2018, they cut Ray Charles’ entire “Message from the People” their way, but with reverence. That unknowingly ended up being the perfect precursor to “Stranger.” With Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Modest Mouse) in the producer’s chair, The Band of Heathens have created their most ambitious, ingenious and completely comfortable listening experience yet.

By the strike of a low, jarring guitar note emulating the tolling of a broken Liberty Bell, the clattering, marching “Vietnorm” opens this expansive soundscape with a chorus, “Head in the clouds, in the clouds, while the sky is falling down,” setting the tone for most of what’s to come. “Dare,” which dares the media to “Tell me something good,” takes off like a shot, its lively pop music sounding like the British band XTC 35 years ago on their “Skylarking” album.

The Beatles influenced XTC, and The Beatles can sure be heard in several spots here. “Black Cat” emits trepidation in its beats, its tale inspired by the real-life adventures of a Portuguese immigrant to New York City in the late 1800s. Contrast that with “How Do You Sleep?,” which bursts forth with strings emulating fireworks, before strumming guitars and gorgeous vocal harmonies support metaphors that might apply to a certain world leader. “

South by Somewhere” subtly, and abstractly touches on love and passion and the failure of race relations, but that comes on the heels of the sweet ballad, “Call Me Gilded,” featuring the idyllic line “If silence is golden, call me gilded.”

These men can surely write prose, and they can surely play like a tiny rock orchestra. Instead of in-your-face, this incredible album comes 100 percent from-the-heart. And, one thing’s for sure—I don’t believe for a second that “Today is Our Last Tomorrow.” But I sure love listening to The Band of Heathens tell me about it.   

-Tom Clarke

  • The Band of Heathens
  • ‘Stranger’
  • Label: BOH Records
  • Release: Sept. 25, 2020

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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