M. Jae Soleil
Whistling Along the Road with The Gravy Boys
Whistling Along the Road with The Gravy Boys
I still listen to local radio although mostly during road trips. I weave in and out of stations just like driving in and out of small towns and cities. Like colorful regions, great songs on the radio get our attention, capture our imagination. They call us to slow down and take them in. I came back to this feeling while listening to Crackerjack Whistle, the most recent release by the Raleigh/Durham-based band The Gravy Boys. If the songs on this album, produced by John Plymale, were playing on the radio during one of my road trips, I’d definitely keep the dial set and hang around for a cup of coffee and, likely too, an evening glass of good, red wine.
Crackerjack Whistle the finely arranged follow-up to the band’s second release, Dust Bowl Lover, continues in the vein of the band’s solid songwriting and storytelling. Yet, here The Gravy Boys have upped the ante with songs even richer in musical texture and spirited playing. True to their Americana, country, and bluegrass roots, the album’s originals pave the road with love ballads, spirituals, drinking songs, and some good ol’ time honky tonk. With great reward to this listener, The Gravy Boys also musically conquer two covers: The Zombies’s sixties classic, “Time of the Season” gets infused with a rollicking hoedown of instrumentals two-thirds through delivering a hearty dose of Carolina twang to this British pop classic. A more recent hit, “Wagon Wheel,” made popular by Old Crow Medicine Show, sits solidly within the band’s tight syncopated rhythms, soulful and harmonizing singing, and sharp timing.
The first track, “Marionette,” one of four songs on this release written by mandolinist and vocalist, Bill Spagnardi, showcases how the band members deftly move in and out of each other’s playing. The delicate opening riffs of Steve Storms’ lead guitar lay gently on top of a soft wail of reverb from a pedal steel guitar, played by returning guest musician Allyn Love, inviting us into this song and characteristic of the musical intricacies on this album. Harmonies sung by Bill and doghouse bassist, Tom Spagnardi resonate beneath lead singer’s Steve “Cele” Celestini’s vibrato, bass voice. The lilting chords of the music carry the song forward even as the singer resolves himself to being tied to his lover’s manipulations.
Other songs on Crackerjack Whistle mirror the motif of a downtrodden man’s steadfast loyalty to a woman who one way or another does him no good. However, both rhythm guitarist, Joe Spagnardi’s “Please Don’t Take Me Back” and Cele’s “I Can’t Quit You,” only teasingly stake claim to despair in the face of a bad love.
The opening and infectious “chomp-chomp-chomp-chomp” rhythm track delivered by Joe’s guitar in “Please Don’t Take Me Back” establishes the mischievousness of this song. While Steve’s guitar picks the melody, Allyn’s pedal steel guitar reverbs with playful cat-like meows alongside him. Nearby, Tom’s doghouse bass knocks against the honky tonk rhythms of Joe’s guitar and Bill’s mandolin. The music’s vibrancy betrays the singer’s claim that, “You know we’re no good together.” Cele’s voice, lucidly concedes in the final third verse, “Oh, I can’t break the magic . . . just one taste from your tender lips and the iris fades to black.” This scene climaxes when Cele howls the final line, “Ohh- oh baby, please don’t take me back!” Throughout the song, Steve’s and Allyn’s solos continue to play against each other with zest and wit contributing to this being one of the most catchy originals on the album.
One of five songs written by Cele, “I Can’t Quit You” is either a rambunctious romp through the singer’s confessed arsenal of sinful habits or an ode of hopeless devotion to the gal who left him. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, it’s a downright fun song. Cele’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is showcased here much as is Steve’s in his composition, “40 Extra Hours.” (That’s what makes The Gravy Boys so satisfying: Their music is good and fun!) Steve’s guitar picks the opening melody of “I Can’t Quit You” (which to me sounds reminiscent of the circus-like sing-song in Arlo Gutherie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”) but here, it’s quickly embraced by the steady “thump-thump” plunking of Tom’s doghouse bass. When in the final verse of this song, the singer proclaims, “I might quit drinking whiskey/I might just quit beer, too/I'll go to them AA meetings/Right after I quit you,” it becomes clear just why the gal likely left him.
Cele additionally provides one of my favorites on this release, “Too Many, Too Early, Tonight.” Fiddler Bobby Britt, also a returning guest musician, accompanies the band bringing his accomplished playing to this fast-tempoed drinking song. While, I seldom sip more than a small glass of beer, this song definitely hails a romping sing-a-long with the chorus, mugs swinging above our heads. The rhythm section of Joe and Bill (who also harmonizes alongside Cele) answers the singer’s opening lines of “Hey there how you doing?/Not too bad, I guess” making this conversation at the bar one amongst the singer and all of his bandmates. The dizzying sense of the singer’s excessive drinking is conveyed as the music’s intensity rapidly increases, which I can testify to from the band’s live shows, makes this an exciting song for partner dancing!
Other songs that stand out on the album, include Steve’s “40 Extra Hours” about an unemployed guy protesting that now, “I got 40 extra hours to go out-of my mind.” The singer unabashedly confesses, however, that those 40 extra hours didn’t come from some corporate layoff: “Had a lotta jobs, but they don’t last for long/Try to do what they tell me, always do it wrong.” As Tom slaps his doghouse bass beneath Steve’s riffs and solos, along with the classic country rhythms in this song, you’ll find yourself tapping your feet and hollering right along with the chorus - unemployed or not!
The emotional richness in Cele’s love ballads, “Love of My Life” and “Rest of Forever” provide an opportunity for him to show his vocal range as he conjures a baritone sound to match Johnny Cash. One of the sweeter of songs on this album, “Firefly,” composed and sung by Bill, pays tribute to the fleeting sense of time we have with our children and the joys they bring. Accompanied here by strings, this song takes on lush and sentimental overtones that weave in and out of the vocals and Steve’s lyrical solos on guitar.
Crackerjack Whistle, filled with rewarding musical nuances, is an album that makes one feel something: good, sad, love, laughter, and more. In this day, that’s a ride worth taking.