CD Review: Sons Of Bill’s Sirens
Lead singer James Wilson says the songs on Sirens (written by him, Abe and Sam Wilson, with bass player Seth Green co-writing on the title track) had to work with just an acoustic guitar to make it on the record. While I have no doubt that’s true, most of the Sons Of Bill’s third album is layered with the heavier sounds of electric guitar. There’s a good bit of organ, too. As I listen to Sirens and imagine its songs played live, I’m not thinking acoustic guitar and a stool. It’s full band, standing up, with the amps turned to 11.
So Bill Wilson’s three eldest sons (plus Green and original SoB drummer Todd Wellons), with the help of producer David Lowery (Cracker), have given us a rock album with some shades of alt-country this time, as opposed to the other way around. They even signal that change with song order. First up (and first single) is Santa Ana Winds, a tune focused on California, while Virginia Calling is at the end of the record. This mix of geography is not so out of character, really. Sure, these guys are from Virginia, but the brothers were scattered all over the country 7 or 8 years ago when James Wilson made his way from out West to New York to see brother Sam, who was playing rock music in the city. Abe was in Maryland at the time. James had written some new songs and had thoughts of putting together a group now named in honor of dad, who’s a professor of philosphical theology and a guitar player himself.
Lyrically, there’s nothing playful or light about this record. In the first single, Santa Ana Winds, we hear, “There ain’t no skating by, we’re all gonna die, no matter what the plastic surgeon told you.” And there’s this from Angry Eyes: “My daddy said, ‘Boy you stare this old world down.’ And it stared right back at me. And alone here in the darkness, is that the man I want to be?” Turn It Up gives us this: “The lies have all lingered on much longer than the coming clean. We all know that art died in the war.” Life In Shambles (which features Lowery and Johnny Hickman) captures an artist at his worst: “The green room girls don’t got a whole lot to say ’cause you look like hell and you smell like yesterday.” And I could go on. But the lyrics don’t dominate the songs, which are carried by the guitars, by the music, driving us to a place beyond cynicism, beyond the dark reflection of the bare words. Paradoxically, James Wilson’s voice, which itself can be at times mournful, seems to pick us up out of the darkness even as he sings about it.
I came to SoB by way of Joey’s Arm, an alt-country ballad of Southern frustrations. I stayed because of the rest of One Town Away, including Broken Bottles, which has, in my view, one of the best lines in alt-country: “Hank Williams might have been a lovesick drinker, but being a lovesick drunk don’t make you Hank.” A couple of years ago I saw the group open for Robert Earl Keen at Fort Worth, and felt then that, as good as these alt-country tunes were, this was a rock band. Sirens, then, seems a natural progression for SoB. Last listen through the record I found myself liking Turn It Up the best, with its 70’s/80’s rock sound, its strong chorus hook and its very interesting piano/guitar outro. Even though that is about as far from Joey’s Arm as it could be. Good work, guys.
Here’s the official video for Santa Ana Winds:
Sirens will be release on March 27.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. Sons Of Bill are too @sonsofbill.