The first half of Hank3's double album, Ghost to a Ghost, is the much more accessible of the two and is basically business as usual for Shelton. But those of us who know Hank know he's always had an experiential side, and the second disc, Guttertown, tosses away the rule book. Hank aims to recreate the historical musical traditions of the Deep South, but does it in his own zany way. Much of Guttertown is authentic, much of it is oddball, some of it is even unsettling. But it will provoke a reaction from you in one way or another.
It's immediately obvious that one of the album's key strengths is its ability to set a mood. The opener, "Goin' to Guttertown," begins with 3 minutes of crickets chirping until Hank's mournful voice comes in and introduces the core concept of Guttertown. He's backed up by a chorus of wild animals screeching, chirping, and buzzing in the background in a wild cacophony.
When Guttertown is at its most lively, it resembles an old fashioned backwater bayou stomp. There is a large emphasis on Cajun music that permeates many of the songs.
One of those is "Getto Stomp," which delivers an ode to drinking in Guttertown, and "Musha's," which lights the room ablaze with its accordion play while also eliciting energizing Cajun shrieks and shouts from Shelton himself. If that's not enough, he also mixes a little French into some of these tracks to give it even more of an authentic feel. Parlez vous francais?
But it doesn't take long to get the sense that all is not well in Guttertown. It's is a desolate, forlorn place where few souls dare to linger; the sensation quickly washes over you. Consider the sense of apprehension in "The Dirt Road," or the almost-a-funeral-dirge that is "The Low Line."
Hank also packs in a number of noise tracks that delivers a dark mood. Some of them are pretty innocent, like "Chord of the Organ," which consists mainly of simple sustain notes on an organ. But "It's Goin' Down" is slightly more sinister, which features the sound of an iron gate blowing and rattling in the distance. "The Round" sounds something like a cross between a squeaking iron machine and a chicken clucking, with the sounds of children's voices eventually coming into the foreground.
What adds to the creepy factor on many of these noise songs is that everything sounds like it's happening off in the distance, so you can't get a complete read on what is going on. But perhaps most disturbing is "Trooper's Chaos," which consists mostly of agonized dog howls. Later on, a series of voices come in that sound almost demonic.
Outside that, most songs have a backwater country feel. "I Promised" and "Move Them Songs" are a pair of tracks featureing Eddie Pleasant and both prominently feature stripped back arrangements and a very tinny audio quality,as if they were playing out of an old timey radio. "I'll Be Gone" boasts a loud cajun accordion with banjos and fiddles galore, along with a vocal performance rough enough to make a cat hiss.
But it's not all gravy. At times Hank gets a bit too cutesy and avant-garde for his own good. There's a run of mood songs in the album's second half that drone on and really go nowhere. It starts with "Trooper's Chaos," which then fades into the dreadful "Chaos Queen," a rough display of bellowing vocals over a forlon organ. Overall it's a mess.
Then you get "Thunderpain," with its thunderclaps and a vocal style similar to the track before it. If you listen closely you can tell the vocals on a few of these songs are meant to be a take on old time Southern soul, but the way Hank sings makes it slightly hard to tell.
But two of the best tracks are collaborations. They work brilliantly because his guests are every bit as oddball as Hank.
First up is "Fadin' Moon" with Tom Waits. Music Row country is often known for sentimental, pitch perfect ballads between people like Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley or somebody. "Fadin' Moon" spits directly in the face of all that. It's a can of cajun kickass; it's a bastardized version of a duet, as Hank's piercing howls are complimented in spectacular fashion by Tom's indecipherable grizzled growls.
One of Guttertown's big accomplishments is bringing the soul back into country that the Nashville syndicate ripped out, and "Fadin' Moon" serves as one of the chief examples of that.
Before the album ends, Hank throws one more left turn at you. Oddly enough, there's no real hint of country on the closer, "With the Ship." In fact, with its quirky melody and lyrics, and it's general goofball style, it would fit in much better on a Les Claypool album than on Guttertown.
But that's Les's loss and Hank's gain, because "With the Ship" is one of the most kickass songs you'll hear this year. It's a song about, well, going down with a sinking ship, and the duo concoct as many ways as they can of saying it. Coupled with a catchy drum beat, you're likely to find yourself repeatedly humming the melody to this one.
Guttertown is, without a doubt, a unique album, and not one you're like to immediately get into. I considered this album a throwaway on first listen, but unlike Ghost to a Ghost this disc takes time and effort to be able to reap its rewards. It isn't perfect; there are some moments that are not really experimental. They're just plain stupid. But Hank has opted for a gritty depiction of the Old South, and like it or love it, there's one thing you can't deny: Guttertown is a place that you don't ever want to go.