By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Two years ago, Whiskey Folk Ramblers (in a tie vote with Tejas Brothers) earned the honor of "Best New Act" in the 2008 Dallas Observer Music Awards, largely on the strength of their debut CD, Midnight Drifter.
The disc was a rollicking collection of songs that blended Old World elements of European folk and klezmer with bluegrass-spiked traditional country, sounding, as we wrote at the time, "...like something you might have heard around the bonfire if a gypsy caravan and a cattle drive happened to cross trails and ended up sharing a barrel or two of whiskey."
The whole thing, including mixing, was banged out in five days at Panhandle House in Denton, where the guys were snowbound during a rare outburst of winter weather. And it shows: Recorded live for the most part, the album captures the raucous, rowdy sound that also makes the band so much fun to see in a live setting.
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So when it came time to record the follow-up, one would think the band would take a similar approach to the music and recording process that resulted in such a warmly received album.
One would be wrong.
Rather than bang out another batch of rough-hewn, full-band live takes, the Ramblers took their sweet damn time—a year and a half—working on ...And There Are Devils with Salim Nourallah, a producer far better known for slick, layered, professional-sounding recordings than for capturing a band's rambunctiously energetic live sound.
Even more unsettling, the band all but abandoned the trad-country-with-a-foreign-accent sound. In fact, lead singer and primary songwriter Tyler Rougeux isn't so sure the band even qualifies as a country act anymore at all.
"We'd been playing for a little over a year or so and had all these country songs," he says of recording the debut. "We never thought we were going to be a country band. One of the last songs, 'Midnight Drifter,' the one we titled the album after, was a lot more along the lines of where we were going with our sound. We kind of threw it on as kind of a tester to see if anyone would even like it in comparison to the other songs. It ended up being a lot of people's favorite song.
"The country music thing that we were doing just got a little boring, honestly. So we just stretched our sound out a little bit and made it more interesting."
The new sound is a stretch, to be sure, veering toward the Western end of the country-and-Western spectrum while piling on more of the gypsy and klezmer influences hinted at in the first album.
But thanks largely to the addition of electric guitarist Mark Moncrieff, the band is branching into big-band jazz, swing and even, at moments, surf rock, as on opener "The Penitent." Upright bassist Jackdaw Russell and drummer Trey Ownby still lay down chugging 2/4 beats that wouldn't be out of place in a bluegrass song, but just as often join in on more ambitious rhythms, such as the pummeling toms of closer "Night of the Indian Morning." Perhaps it's because the band occasionally covers another swing classic, Cab Calloway's "Minnie The Moocher," that the percussion brings to mind the epic drum solo of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)."
As for soundtrack influences, the love of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western sound is once again evident in Patrick Adams' minor-key trumpet outbursts and Moncrieff's slinking, reverb-soaked guitar lines on the intro and outro tracks, as well as in more subtle moments throughout the disc. Another film composer, a favorite of multi-instrumentalist Richard Lee Davenport, makes an unexpected appearance as well: Danny Elfman. The playfully frantic piano and bell kit of the Davenport-composed "Elevator Music," the disc's ninth track, is so close an approximation to Elfman's work that it sounds as if the band is covering the theme to a forgotten Tim Burton movie. In fact, Rougeux admits, the song sounds so much like Elfman that the band debated whether to leave it on the disc before deciding that it works as a nice transitional interlude.
The band faced other such decisions as well, wondering whether they should branch out into darker sounds that Davenport and Rougeux come up with together.
"Salim helped us in a way, being like, 'Why wait? Why not use those songs now and make your band what you really want it to be?'" Rougeux says. "He helped a lot in pushing us to make this album the way we want it to be instead of the way we were trying to kind of be safe and make it in the beginning."
That encouragement, though, is also part of why the album took so long to complete. The band would take home recordings, discuss during practice what they wanted to do differently and come back to Nourallah's Pleasantry Lane studio full of new ideas, Rougeux says. Nourallah also understood that the band wanted to keep what Rougeux calls its "dirty" sound, resisting opportunities to clean it up while at the same time not making it "fake dirty." A big factor in deciding whether to run with a given idea was whether the band could pull it off live, and Rougeux is satisfied that the album captures what the band has grown to be.
And just what is that? Pressed with the question of genre—on which rack should a record store stock the CD?—Rougeux debates himself for a moment.
"I wish I knew," he says, laughing. "It's got a Western vibe to it, so I can see how, because our first album was country, they would put it under that.
But ultimately he settles on the all-encompassing "rock 'n' roll" category.
Whatever the genre, the band is working on setting up a West Coast tour to promote the self-released sophomore album after a handful of North Texas gigs through June.