HONEYHONEY – 3 (ALBUM REVIEW)

honeyhoneyalbumBen Jaffe and Suzanne Santo have been making music as HONEYHONEY for close to a decade. With Santo’s strong lead vocals, banjo, and violin melding together with Jaffe’s soft harmonies and lead guitars, they’ve garnered positive press and a loyal following by playing a raw and honest blend of country-influenced Americana that tilts less towards the timidity of a band like Mumford & Sons and more in the direction of the rugged sound of someone like Ryan Bingham. They’ve crisscrossed the country multiple times in a small touring van, chucked out material that hasn’t worked, and haven’t shied away from seeking that true sound they hear in their respective musical minds. Plus, according to their frequently used Twitter account (which also recently included a somewhat clever yet testy exchange with comedian/podcaster extraordinaire Marc Maron, in which they were defended by none other than Vernon Reid) they’re Cleveland sports fans, which is all right in my book.

And, like those Cleveland teams they cheer for, nothing comes easy. The duo has had to work hard and shuffle priorities on the fly without a whole lot of outside support or critical attention. Lost amongst the dissolution of Lost Highway Records and adrift in an unceasing end of dates as the opening act for small theater and amphitheater shows, Jaffe and Santo took matters more into their own hands by self-financing a lengthy U.S. tour, shuffling across the pond to Europe to open for Jake Bugg, and most importantly, using this time of upheaval and change to gather and write material that comprises their latest album, 3. Turning to producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson’s producer on his breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to help craft a more immediate and resonant feel, 3’s dozen tracks fit nicely into the expanding canon of recent non-trad country, left-of-the-dial releases that have been garnering a nice dose of support and positive reviews of late.

With a darker and weightier tone to the sound and a more personal sense of introspection to the lyrics, the album differs a bit from prior releases. The changes reflect all that they’ve endured over the past couple of years and take things down an interesting and wide-ranging route that eschews breezy toe-tappers in favor of more dark and harsh arrangements that cast an air of fiery desperation. It’s a band that seems to be on a mission to accomplish what they long ago to set to reach. There’s the soulful propulsion of “Back to You”, where Santo and Jaffe’s voices harmonize into a forceful roar gathered around a storm of hard driving rhythms. Elsewhere, “You and I” packs enough dramatic punch to fill in as a scene track on the hit TV drama, Nashville. Later, “God of Love” achingly pleads with higher powers for guidance in times of need and confusion, while one song later, “Swing Thing” sassily declares its’ selfish intentions with unrepentant embrace.

“I don’t want to fight with you baby/But it’s just that you’ve been in my way lately”, Santo matter-of-factly states over a whirl of soaring pedal steel, shuffling drums, rhythm acoustic guitar, and violin on “Yours to Bear”. It’s a striking opening line that asserts the newfound independence HONEYHONEY has been working towards over the years. Regardless of whether she’s speaking towards past managers, labels, or lovers, Santo makes you a believer as her strong voice crescendos towards the song’s climax where she declares: “You’re mine to share my days with now.” Listen to this song a few times and you too just may follow her and Jaffe wherever they take you.

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4 thoughts on “HONEYHONEY – 3 (ALBUM REVIEW)

  1. A.J. Reply

    I love the songs on this record. But I loved most of them before they were recorded. A lot of the arrangements were changed… whether it was one chord or the entire tone and tempo of a song, and quite frankly, I feel they were better before Dave Cobb stepped in. “Big Man,” which is a song I heard for the first time at Mt. Greylock, Jaffe’s alma mater, brought the room to tears. Under the new direction, it falls very flat, the vocal lines are all over the place, and it feels extremely rushed, like they got sick of telling the story already. “Back to You” is a song I’ve been waiting since before “Billy Jack”‘s release to appear on a record, and it seems like they’ve messed around with that too. honeyhoney is best when Santo and Jaffe are left alone, preferably on a stage or a porch, to be themselves. I have nothing against a band growing in sound and depth, but when something is already perfect, there is such a thing as too much meddling. I still love this album, but I hope they release a deluxe version entitled “2.9” where they go back to the previous arrangements. Suzanne has such an incredible voice, and I feel like it’s underused and buried under too much instrumentation. I also feel like we were robbed of some great vocal harmonies between these two. They can make you cry and laugh and rock and roll and hoe-down all in a few minutes’ time, but I just wish they were more confident in their original compositions and didn’t let whoever told them to change the songs (even if it was the voice inside themselves) get the best of them.

  2. Ryan Reply

    The first comment from A.J. says it perfectly. I have been following this band for years and love the original versions of these songs so much more. This is still a great album but the amazing harmonies heard on Billy Jack are totally drowned out by the over production.

    I would compare the change in sound to the song Wagon Wheel. Listen to the original by Old Crow Medicine Show and then the Hootie and the Blowfish version. The original is in my opinion 100x better than the Hootie version. That being said, Hootie is selling a lot more records so hopefully Honey Honey will finally get the recognition and money they deserve.

  3. Russ Reply

    It pains me to agree with you both, but it has been growing on me so that’s good. It’s just that BILLY JACK is actually one of my favorite albums ever, particularly in terms of production. Dave Cobb has actually been hit and miss in my book, but I was still excited about the pairing. Ultimately it’s disappointing. Much has been made of him doing only 1 or 2 takes of Suzanne’s lead vocals, but I think all that did was make her push a little too much, her vocals are less dynamic than before, they’re all at 9 or 10. And Ben’s harmonies? I can barely hear them. Drums sound weird, almost like a drum machine. All that said, it’s still better than most stuff out there, and the songs are great, and will still be great live. I suppose along with high expectations come misleading preconceptions.

  4. Nick Reply

    Wow; really surprised by the comments here. I have what appears to be the benefit of being a new fan (I had Billy Jack previously but it never made it into heavy rotation after a few listens). This is my album of the year so far, and the first I’ve loved top to bottom since Lera Lynn’s The Avenues last year. The vocals here are spectacular, and I love all of these arrangements – wouldn’t want them to change a thing. God Of Love in particular is pretty much a perfect song in every way. Looking forward to giving the back catalog (and hopefully a show) a chance.

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