Such is the widespread mass appeal popularity of Americana these days that even a band that gives itself an odd handle like Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank can get a measure of credibility, if not based on the name then at least on the music. Minnesota-based brothers Teague and Ian Alexy, the nephews in question, won critical kudos their last time out with the boldly titled Number One Contender, scaling the peak of a decade long career that’s taken them to varying sized venues all across the country. Their professed admiration for freewheeling forebears like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac may be one reason for their continued travels but the response they’ve received in return indicates that their home brewed methods have paid off with the populace.
“We try and make music not just for the people, but of the people,” Teague state in the band’s bio, and in fact, the rough-hewn, well-frayed sound represented by their newly arrived fifth album American Shuffle suggests they’ve achieved just that.
“The foundation of Hobo Nephews is our songs,” Teague goes on to explain. “I am proud of the playing too because I feel like we have earned our sound through live shows and traveling, but the songs interest me most.
The question remains whether those songs will interest those they intend to attract. Produced by Ryan Young, primarily known as the fiddle player for the band Trampled By Turtles, the new album eschews polish and pretence for a sense of authenticity spawned from mid America’s heartland. The ragged shuffle of album opener “Everybody’s Got a Baby But Me” sets the tone, its unfettered combination of guitars, banjo, pedal steel and rhythm suggesting a certain degree of spontaneity. “Down the Line,” “When the Night Comes” and “Take This Town” further affirm that organic notion, and break down the barrier between artist conceit and audience’s in terms of a common bond. There are elements of humor and whimsy as well; their staunch homage to a controversial sports icon, “The Day Billy Martin Quits,” purveys a measured blend of respect and ridicule. (“…the suits who own the baseball team do what they gotta do/Given half a chance, Billy’d curse them out too…”) Indeed.
That’s all well and good, but it’s the hints of Dylan and Neil Young that give the album its real impetus, whether it’s the forlorn sound of “Me, You & the Universe” or the lazy sprawl of “Over and Over Again.” Still, the Hobo Nephews veer awfully close to outright imitation on “Old Number Four,” a competitive analogy that sounds like a note for note redo of “The Times They Are A’Changing.” It comes so close in fact, that it’s tempting to sing along, substituting Dylan’s lyric for the one they’ve crafted on their own
That sole twist aside, American Shuffle measures up well, a loose, ramshackle ramble of an album that declares a certain degree of independence. While it may not be enough to put the duo ahead of the competition, it affirms the fact that at least they’re worthy contenders.