One of the saddest mysteries of the musical world is why the Fiftymen wait so damn long to release a new record. But it’s no use complaining. Let’s just be thankful that their latest, self-titled effort is finally out. Yes, Fiftymen are back, with their tried and true outlaw country/honky tonk/rock (and a tinge of psychedelia). Play this loud.
As if to announce a return from the dead, the record starts with a rocking up-tempo riff, and then the band tears through “Wedding Band”. This is classic Fiftymen, with some awesome fiddle accompaniment, as the band takes us through a middle American ride. Shifting gears into “Laureen”, Fiftymen explore adolescent love, sentimental sounds and all, putting all of us in mind of summer love, the freedom of the car, and the power of your parents. Again, the strings here are a lovely complement to a classic slow burn love song. There’s a theme of love and loss to this record, for sure. “Don’t Cry” is a traditional country tune, with lyrics to match. Lovely harmonies underline the sadness in the song, and the fiddle takes on another strong role. Whiskey all around.
But enough with that. Fiftymen are most exciting when they are rocking, and “Shake It (Like It’s On Fire)” will get the dead to dance. Locomotive beat, bass line unrelenting, the lyrics here reflect the soul of band: “She got soul and rhythm, she got wild wild desire.” But it almost seems like the band is teasing us with its old personality, as it shifts again into more thoughtful territory: “Diesel Fuel and Kerosene” tells the story of a hometown fire, but the message is more subtle: small towns stifle, constrain and engender a sadness that can’t be escaped. The fiddle here cries for you. And even though some may escape, they are still tied to that place. JJ Hardill’s baritone nails the mood exactly with the refrain: “It’s all falling down around me and I’m not really sure if I’ll remain forever changed.” Definitely a standout track.
“The Fastlane” starts out slow, with a distorted jangly guitar, a slow build up over time, and lovely organ touches. The love and loss theme pops up here again: “I guess it’s easy to forget what you had once you lost it.” This is 70s style southernish slow rock. It’s hard to make this music without sounding recycled; Fiftymen tackle it fantastically, especially with the strings. “That Look On Your Face” is another standout track on this record, and a good indication of where Fiftymen could go with their sound. The song definitely evokes sixties psychedelia a la Doors, but there is something more here. I hear a little grunge, a little Sonic Youth, a little edge with the band pushing its traditional country based music. I look forward to more of this. To continue the somewhat experimental phase, Fiftymen shift gears into “Already Gone”. Although the surf style is not unfamiliar territory for a band that mines traditional rock sources, the band adds some subtle touches with horns and strings. Clearly Fiftymen are looking for other musical areas to explore. “Fiftymen” wraps up with “I Always Get What I Want”, a slow, sad burner about hitting the bottom and the bottle. Nice harmonies and more horns add grace to this thoughtful closer.
Fiftymen are not full time musicians. Clearly, they are passionate about their art, and that is reflected in this latest release. The production is polished, and the music carries you across a great spectrum of country and rock music, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but always with that heartfelt Fiftymen intensity that those who know the band love so much. Twin guitar, a great rhythm section, and Hardill’s steady voice carry it all like a train. Fortunately, the band is doing more live shows these days and hopes to hit the festival circuit in the summer, including a spot at the Ottawa Bluesfest on July 3rd. While “Fiftymen” is a great, outlaw country record, Fiftymen are best seen live, and preferably in the most divey place you can think of. Wherever it is, you won’t be disappointed.