The union of Laurel and Hattiesburg is far more than that scenic drive up I-59. First, our sister city was actually founded the same year as Hattiesburg. Also, both municipalities were part and parcel to a lumber boom. Today, we both have flourishing music scenes with artists that regularly merit this perfunctory jaunt.
The members of Royal Horses are no strangers to these roads. In fact, their familiarity is immediately evident on their debut LP "A Modern Man's Way To Improve." Guitarist/vocalist Shelby Kemp sings with an open-mouth style where his words matter as much as any modulations in his silvery voice. From behind his kit, drummer Daniel Firth is wildly inventive, serving up parts that are always nimble and never busy. Finally, the earthy rumble of Kenny Paul Mann on his double bass is most often the coal that fires this locomotive new Americana band.
While their music is rooted in Country, Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Blues, Southern Rock and even the wind-up turf of jam bands, Royal Horses rarely shows their influences outright. You might hear the banjo on "Call It War" or the Chuck Berry-ish chug on "Ruby Do," but these 10 tracks are that rare instance where the element does not define the song.
The organ-laden "There She Walks" is the closest to a blueprint of a Royal Horses song. While it is the most riff-heavy cut on the album, their skillful arrangement routinely distracts from the anthemic melody that buoys the track. Opening with an almost funeral organ, Firth's incessant drums drive the song effortlessly toward its shimmering chorus. Where Kemp's guitar is mainly minimal but heavily-chorused chords, Mann's bass takes a turn behind the wheel before a careful dramatic build unfolds, allowing Kemp to then drive it home with a blistering solo. (Bonus points for the R.E.M.-ish dovetailing minor-chorded conclusion.)
The Okemah Roads release was designed with the classic 1970 Grateful Dead album "Workingman's Dead" firmly in mind. The elegantly-packaged LP's second-side opener, "Leave A Light (Sweet Lane)," comes very close to being this album's "Casey Jones." As the most Country song on the album, the true thrill lies in their subtle time-change from finger-picking blur-grass and lonesome slide to the hint of driving Rock they smuggle in between verses.
It is more of an Uncle John's Band-meets-The Band vibe on the album's opener, "Bottom of the Chart." Kemp sings with some imaginative internal rhyme as a very Levon-esque mandolin pushes "Bottom" to the top of the potential singles for this promising trio. Where "Bottom" breaks the band open, the harmony-laden "Valley of the New" demonstrates their songwriting prowess. Its Basement Tapes-era Dylan chorus and Latin-flavored acoustic guitar solo are a testament to John Michael Early's production, adding only what is necessary to these tracks.
Royal Horses on record is much like their scintillating live shows. Where many of the songs focus on subtle changes, their mixtures of different musical facets truly illuminate the road ahead. Hill Country Blues meets Merle Travis on the mixture of gritty Blues and florid finger-picking of "Who Do You Know?," while the title cut meshes the unlikely pairing of Meat Puppets and the Allman Brothers on an Americana song that swings hard thanks to Firth's percussion. "Rattlesnake Smoking A Cigarette" lets the whole band run wild, and "Ruby Do" juxtaposes rockabilly slap bass from Mann with its funky, jammy verses.
"A Modern Man's Way To Improve" is a stunning first chapter for the powerful trio. By the time you arrive at the backwards cymbal that ends the album on the evocative and mesmerizing "BLD," you will eagerly flip the record over to start the rollercoaster ride yet again.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T- BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor.
Photo by Walker Photo Works (Rob Walker)