Friday, February 11, 2011

Mandi Layne & The Lost Highway - Drunk in Love

It’s been sometime since the local country scene broke free from its lethrgy and came up with something new. Mandi Layne is a fresh face with a rootin’ tootin’ country rock style that will get you starting out tapping your toes and before long you’ll be dancing, drinking shots and hoopin’ amd a hollerin’ like a young and almost skeltal Johnny Cash doing white crosses and black bennies and staying up days on end just to take it all in. I haven’t heard anthing this exciting since the iconoclastic Charlie Klein and the Honky Tonk Zeros wrote about Hank Williams and told the real story. But Layne…she’s into something bigger. Bigger choruses , bigger hooks and a big rich sound. Kudos to Andy Reed who divined a way to merge Owen Bradley’s vision of modern country music with the style and craft of Phil Spector. Reed is adept at layering sound and building a rich aural landscape that envelope the music. But Mandi Layne and the band deserve much of the credit. They possess spunk and energy and youthful confidence. They have something real that cannot be denied. Layne’s got “it” - an almost indefinable star quality, certifiably hot – an amalgam of Avril Lavigne attitude and the look of Jennifer Love Hewitt. Oh, mama… Let me take you for a ride to new Virginny where the mist the apple blossoms kiss your face and the slight southern breeze brushes your hair. Listen to Mandi Layne and the Lost Highway….

If You Ain’t Wasted opens the disc like a sonic thunderstorm. The fiddle and slide trade off riffs like gun shots. It’s like Duane and Dickie doing Whipping Post or the Black Crowes going seriously country. Layne’s vocal is soulful and nuanced. She’s at once both fresh faced and naughty but hasn’t adopted the worn resignation of living life on the edge and experiencing bottomed out misery. She’s still in control and having the time of her life. When she says “Bring it on Boys” she means it.
These cats can play

Hell Hath No Fury (like a woman scorned) is a countrified salute to Alanis Morissette’s masterpiece (of a woman scorned) Jagged Little Pill. Layne pulls no punches in her exacting vocal tribute to Morissette’s unique stylized intonations. The quietude of the music swells into a loud, angry and powerful statement. Cobain would be proud! There are several tempo changes and the guitarist Barry Forster is brilliant, sounding more like Hendrix than Willie.

The title tune Drunk in Love is quite intoxicating. Great metaphor- eh? But Layne sings it sweet and straight like Reba on a greatest hits tour or Shania doing AC/DC. I love the line “like a warm shot of whiskey lay me down”- don’t quite know what it means but when Mandi sings it, I just say, “ooh, baby, make it a double”. But don’t get fooled by the metaphor, Drunk in Love is a cool love song.

Star of My Life borrows from the Bon Jovi play book with the hook coming straight outta You Can’t Go Back. The lyrics convey the dialectic of a life lived to its fullest - sometimes sad; sometimes funny – but always packed with a lot of action. Right on! The well conceived bridge recalls our ghosts from the nursery…“I keep hearing my daddy’s voice, the bigger they are; the harder they fall. I like the stop/start at the end with that classic countdown...
The guitarist plays it like a modern day Thurlow Brown, the cat that showed Levon Helm (The Band) all those bar chords, diminished and augmented things going up and down the neck like nobody’s business!

Brown Bottle Blues is a mid-tempo ballad with minor chord riff. The fiddle and jangly acoustic creates an emotional landscape that holds both longing and the triumph o f the song. The lyrics tell a story about choices. In the end the singer chooses an empowered voice over her lover.

The Simple Side of Life is a perfect companion to Brown Bottle Blues. It’s a minor chord classic that is reflective yet powerful with great close harmonies and a rockin’ Van Halen guitar riff. The protagonist is a little older now and a little bit wiser. The song starts out stark and quiet, a tempo picks up and the instruments buildup and quiet down to accentuate the message – to get back to the simpler pleasures and to remember who we were when we started…when you and I are all we had to do. This is a song about values and integrity and loving honestly. Not easy in this day and age of instant celebrity and mass hypnotic narcissism.

The Biker Song is an elegant up-tempo shuffle (love them shuffle beats) that’s guaranteed to get you off your soggy wrinkled rear-end and up on the dance floor to do the Tennessee two-step and shakin’ it like a jackhammer manhandling a construction worker and he’s liking it. To hell with line dancing, express yourself and do your own thing. The road is a perfect metaphor for the longing in the song. The singer is a risk taker…she got the look and the moxie to explore unchartered waters – to be OK with not knowing. It was pure genius to insert That’s All Right Mama in the coda. I bet Elvis is smiling at the sincere tribute. Excellent song.

NBD is a straight out rocker with a bit of an early Eagles feel. Layne is singing about our necessary losses – like a older sibling coming to terms with the birth of his baby brother and not having mom’s love alone or the loss of innocence (at around age three) when you discover you are a boy and your best buddy Sheila is a girl…yeech – or in this case getting over a failed relationship. Dig the name dropping from New Kids on the Block to AC/DC and Rainbow Brite. She says getting over all these things are no big deal. But when I look back…I’m not so sure. I don’t covet the past but these memories sure can fill me up.

Chinese Monday is a fantastic title that hints the intimacy in the lyric. It’s a modern love song with a husky vocal, echoed and sensual, that suggests intimacy at the same time she signals uncertainty when she is alone. The fear of abandonment – an existential aloneness like an infant crying in her crib, never certain her cries will ever be heard. But this is an adult tangle of love, sex and intimacy, more than a synaptic connection…it’s the meeting of souls.

Greg Kervokian sings like a sober Dickie Betts on Friends & Lovers. He trades off lead vocals with Layne and when they harmonize, the results are exquisite. The stylistic vocal approach has just the right nuance and intimacy to convey an understated libidinal urgency – like magnet to steel. So… we cross the line between friendship and romantic love. But if you been long-time together, married or otherwise you know deeply and certainly that lovers become friends and perhaps it’s this quality of deep abiding friendship that can sustain us when the heat has gone.

She’s Gonna Get a Life is a lush mid-tempo ballad about crossroads and courage. This is the perfect vehicle for Layne to display the power and range of her incredible pipes. It’s never easy to change your life, even if it is necessary or even the right thing to do. This song’s ending question is really a statement question… life begins at the end of the rainbow - down I-75 south to Tennessee. More pop than country, this could be a big hit on adult contemporary.

Runaway With Me is a modern slap dash rockabilly that would fit perfectly in a Social Distortion set list. This tune is irresistible. From my perch this has all the makings of a hit – great hook, lyrics that are joyful with just a tinge of melancholy, perfect close harmonies – a well conceived and skillful performance! Fiddles, barrel house piano and guitar trills tell the story. This is a sing-a-long crowd pleaser anthem of the highest degree.

The closer Straight to Hell is a close cousin to the aforementioned Runaway with Me – is a mid-tempo country outlaw waltz, perfect for line dancing, drinking PBR and screaming HELL YEAH. When Layne sings “I’m going straight to hell – just like mama said” she’s stepping outside her pain and finding her empowered voice. I love this song. It’s bold and defiant and it’s a slap in old mama’s face. That old cracked template ain’t gonna push her around anymore. No shame in the pain. Her soul is free. This is another classic by Mandi and the boys. Instantly memorable.

Check out Mandi Layne and Lost Highway on MySpace and for Pete’s sake buy this CD…it’s the best new music to come down the line in years.

Bo White

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