By Hal Horowitz
The vulnerability in the lyrics and music of the Hackensaw Boys' new release feels honest and natural - a refreshing way to propel the band forward into their third decade.
Tracing the personnel changes since the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Hackensaw Boys started back in 1999 is more difficult than doing the same task for Fleetwood Mac’s twisted history. Dozens of musicians have passed through the Hackensaw outfit with members such as Pokey LaFarge spending time within its ever-shifting environs.
Co-founder David Sickmen has been in and out of the group, whose membership size has also grown and shrunk with regularity. He is currently firmly ensconced as frontman/singer/songwriter of the once raw string band. Sickmen’s son Jonah is now also an official member of what, on this album at least, is a stripped-down four-piece. He plays the makeshift percussive instrument called a Charismo which appears to be a bunch of old cans held together by duct tape.
That’s the way the often ragged Hackensaw Boys - their name taken from “hacking and sawing” their instruments - roll. Or used to.
The band’s traditional string band lineup - the elder Sickmen on guitar, Chris Stevens on bass and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Powers playing fiddle, banjo and mandolin - has seldom strayed from their punky, energized attack. It helped put them on bills supporting the eclectic likes of Flaming Lips, Cake, De La Soul and Modest Mouse, which substantially increased their visibility.
However, this full-length album, a follow-up to 2019’s A Fireproof House of Sunshine EP, finds the quartet in a more pop-oriented and reflective state. The tunes stick to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and occasionally song structure, as in the waltz-time ‘My Turn’.
The melancholy duet with Sara Beck is about a musician who blames himself for his broken relationship: “I know that I lost you / I traded us for the road / I left you with our children / To carry an unequal load”. Sickmen’s often floating melodies generally follow a more singer/songwriter, folksy approach.
There aren’t many playful moments, as the collection sticks to a studied sound that works wonderfully with Sickmen’s generally melancholy tunes. His expressive, everyman voice conveys the emotion in songs like the unrequited love of ‘On Your Time’ where he sings over a simmering strummy bass, “If you want me to / I could be there for you”.
In this atmosphere, the spirited ‘Cages We Are Grown In’, with its serious treatise on ageing (“The clock in your head will not let you go / Time is an unrelenting thief”), and the closing instrumental hoedown ‘Rye Straw’ are retro bluegrass throwback anomalies rather than a consistent thread.
How meditative, introspective tunes such as ‘Only on the Brightside’, which contemplates living life as its title implies, or a straight ahead cover of Dylan’s ‘All I Really Want to Do’, get revved up for the stage where the Hackensaw Boys have prospered due to their notoriously animated show, is unclear.
Regardless, the elder Sickmen has plenty on his mind and the songwriting chops to deliver his often pensive ruminations with a subtle and emotional musical slant. It may be at odds with the scruffy, unfiltered style his band has previously been known for, but the vulnerability in the lyrics and music feels honest, natural and a refreshing way to propel the Hackensaw Boys forward into their third decade.
Hackensaw Boys' self-titled album is out on Friday 24th June.