On June 19th The Steeldrivers released their fourth album entitled, The Muscle Shoals Recordings. This istheir fourth album, but their second with lead singer and guitarist, Gary Nichols. Their first two albums were done with Chris Stapleton. The new album has got tons of fantastic material and is a real improvement from their previous release, Hammer Down. It’s an improvement in the sense that the songs are better, but it also showcases Nichols’s voice much better than Hammer Down. On this album Nichols’s voice sounds unique and different and he isn’t trying to be or sound like Stapleton in any way. His real strengths aren’t so much in the high notes, but rather in the low ones and there’s a good amount of low tempo songs on this album for him to really show what he’s got. His abailities can really be heard in songs such as, “Brother John” and “Hangin’ Around”. Although on the songs that rquier high notes he does a nice job, but there really isn’t much of a uniqueness in his voice when he hits them.
The album begins with this great cheating song named “Long Way Down” and on the first “Long Way Down” Nichols hits this really nice low note on down that sounds gorgious. This is when I realized the kind of chops he has as a singer. Not only does he sing well on this track, but the band opens the album with these really bluesy guitar notes. The tune is all about being cheated on by your lover and it has this awesome line in the chorus that goes “thought you had wings, but I guess you aint got ’em”. This is only the first glimpse of the writing that is on this album. As “Long Way Down” goes on, the band changes the songs tempo within the last chorus, which sounds really interesting and experimental for them.
“Ashes of Yesterday” is one of the other many highlights that this record has to offer. Its the band’s first waltz, but the way they arrange the waltz is what’s really interesting. For instance through the first couple verses Nichols sings the chorus all the way thorough, but as the song progresses he just sings “Ashes of Yesterday” and Tammy Rogers plays the rest of its melody on fiddle. This tune also has a nice twnagy guitar solo by Nichols. There’s another fantastic line in the middle of the song that goes “the heart has a way of remembering the good”, but other than these things this is all this song has to offer.
“Day Before Temptation” is another great tune on the album. Writing about bad things, or people who are provoked to do bad things, really is the theme of this band when it comes to the songs they write. This theme is very apparent in “Day Before Temptation”. This song is all about wishing there was nothing to provoke you to do anything bad. The song has this amazing line that goes, “it goes back to the start of God’s creation, that a whisper has a name, it’s called temptation”. Really strong writing yet again, as well as some interesting singing. For the first time on this album Nichols and Rogers are singing two completely different lines. Nichols handles the bridge, while Rogers handles the ooohs. There is even some nice mandolin played by Brent Truitt.
The Steeldrivers put their first instrumental on this new album, which is entitled, “California Chainsaw”. The instrumenatl is lead by their banjo player, Richard Bailey and then is followed up with a solo by Rogers. This is a good uptempo instrumental, but it’s worth noting that they put this new sound on the record, more than it is writing about the instrumental itself. “Cailfornia Chainsaw” and “Ashes of Yesterday” are really the two songs that bring a new style or idea that the band has done before.
“Hangin’ Around” is another song that shows off Nichols’s voice really well. It doesn’t have many high notes, so he really can show off his low tone. The song is all about needing someone to talk to. This is the light hearted song for the album in terms of the album’s story songs go. It to has a great line that goes, “you may not always see me, but even the sun can hide behind a little cloud”. This tune also has some really cool rhythm playing by Nichols. This playing, however, comes up within the middle of the song.
Towards the end of the record is when the band gets to what their best at, which is their murder ballads. There’s three on the album, but only two of them are really worth noting. These two are, “Brother John” and “River Runs Red”. “River Runs Red” does and does not belong in this category, but more about that later. “Brother John” certainly belongs in the category of murder ballads, and is all about a man named John, who’s on the run from the law. He’s on the run because he comitted murder. Not only did he commit murder, but he fell in love with the wife of the victim. In fact he fell in love with the wfie and because he fell in love with her (and she in love with hm), he killed her husband. Now instead of just having a cheating song, like the beginning of the record, the band recorded a cheating song with an ounce of murder to go on top.
The Steeldrivers pulled out something really spectacular to end the album, with “River Runs Red”. This tune is all about a massacre that occured to a group of people at the Stones River. It belongs in the category of murder balllads, but with the way Nichols sings and the way the band presents it, there is a great sadness that comes over the listner. Compared to “Brother John” this song has a much more serious tone to it. When you listen to “Brother John” you almost want Brother John to get away and to escape. There’s even a sense of understanding for what John did. However, with “River Runs Red”, Nichols gives no hint of forgiveness and doesn’t want the listenre to have any either. Since this song comes with an overwhelming sense of sadness and seriousness it doesn’t really belong in the band’s catalouge of murder songs, but rather in a ctatgory of its own. The second verse in this song really hits you because Nichols sings about where some of the victims were from. There’s quite a brilliance in the way they wrote the bridge, as well. Until you hear the bridge you have no idea when this event happened, nor at what river.
This album really puts The Steeldrivers back on the map. They’ve got their great songs about peole doing bad things, but now they’ve mixed that with having a great understanding what their lead man’s strengths are as a singer. They could certainly put themselves back on the map if they keep making albums like this. By back on the map, I mean back to the popularity they had when they released their first albbum a couple years ago.