For the past 15 years, Austin outfit The Band Of Heathens have embraced a satisfying ethos of “trends be damned, do what feels right.” And they’ve managed to do it mostly on their own, self-releasing their own records and playing a decidedly unique brand of Americana that draws from Blues, Folk, Country and Classic Rock. When not forced to park the van for half a year due to a global pandemic, they also spend a bulk of their lives out on the road playing clubs.
So, it should be little surprise that Stranger, their seventh studio record, is more of the same…and that’s a great thing. At first listen, Stranger appears to have few of the hallmarks of contemporary music trends, and lyrically it covers themes not distinctly tied to the present. It could have just as easily come out four decades ago. The trippy “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow,” a high point on the record, could have come straight out of the early ‘70s when Austin’s hippies and rednecks regularly mingled at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
But on repeated listens, there are signs of our current political dystopia creeping into the music. On the song “Truth Left,” they detail the politicization of truth, turning siblings against each other and ushering in an environment where facts have lost meaning (“Staring back at the news/Playing back the usual scores/There ain’t no truth left, we’re getting used to it”). A similar theme pops up in “Dare,” which is about a society split into respective political corners. Even on “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow,” mentioned above, there are hints of 2019/2020 with talks of fires burning in California (a sadly relevant lyric regardless of the year) and building a wall “A thousand miles tall/Protect what we have taken”). While the band has never been overtly political, Stranger manages to serve as a natural follow-up to their last record A Message from the People Revisited, a surprisingly optimistic tribute to the 1972 Ray Charles album, written in similarly turbulent times.
Elsewhere on the album, the band turns in two remarkable tunes about touring that seem sadly nostalgic in our current reality on “Ashville Nashville Austin” and “South By Somewhere.” On their latest album, The Band Of Heathens are still proudly flying their own flag but show they also aren’t immune to our current realities. Regardless, Stranger manages to be another impressively stellar album from a band that has made a career out of churning out stellar albums.
Photo credit: Jason Quigley