The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash

Distance Between (Ultimatum Music)

When Mark Stuart name-drops the Man in Black twice on the opening track, "Monte Carlo," it makes the Bastards feel less like outlaws and more like a new-country galoot stressing that he always listens to Hank Williams but never sounds anything like him. But once Stuart's "Monte Carlo" veers out of good-ol'-boy territory and the Bastards wipe off the goofy grins, the album gets compelling. Producer Mark Howard was Daniel Lanois' engineer for Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind (and Deadman's recent Paramour), and he brings to this record that same atmospheric distance between the up-front voice and the instrumentation dancing fancifully in the background. With these dynamics, Stuart's voice sounds uncannily like Bruce Springsteen might've if his Tunnel of Love emptied out into The Joshua Tree. Check out the blue-collar uncertainty of "Hard Times" ("This house we built on thin ice/Hard love and hard times") and the brilliantly disguised domestic misery of "Beautiful Cage."

The second half of the album feels like the digital delay stopped working--and the band just decided to kick back and rock instead of fleshing out an audiophile project. "Wind It Up" displays the kind of shredding guitar solo you might hear on a Crazy Horse album, while "Marfa Lights" and "Damage Is Done" have the offhand shit-kicking charm of Steve Earle's best filler. Like any other out-of-wedlock progenies, the Bastard Sons display innate identity problems, but the reward of Distance Between is hearing the band stylistically walk the line between country and rock and repeatedly opt to do what's not expected.

 
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