Let’s travel to the land of “alt-country” for a bit, shall we? It’s always fascinating researching artists who are brand new to you and seeing not only what type of music they like to play, but also what music influenced them growing up. For most Country artists you’ll hear talk of heroes such as George Strait, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and so many more. It’s rare that you ever hear of a country band being influenced by acts that really can’t be labeled as strict “traditional country”.
Caleb Keith and his band the Calaveras claim that bands such as Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97’s, Two Dollar Pistols and the Jayhawks along with classic country, rock and soul are the sounds that have shaped them thus far. Based in Athens, Georgia, the band finally decided after years of writing and careful timing that they would hit the studio to record their debut album. Teaming up with Mike Albanese, the band finally was able to craft their debut album, Between Late and Lonesome, an album categorized as “a reflection of the group’s blend of honkytonk, rock, and soul, with songs about loving and leaving, late nights and lonely highways, heartaches, hard times, and hope”. Well that certainly sounds right up my alley. So what did I find?
Caleb Keith and the Calavera’s debut project is certainly a strong start for the band. It’s an album that certainly exemplifies all of the elements I described at the end of my prelude and also digs a little deeper than that as well. Being a debut album there’s admittedly a few rough spots, but overall, Caleb Keith and the Calavera’s are on the right track to crafting a great blend of their influences while also honing in on their own style as well.
The album takes a darker turn on tracks like “Liza Jane” and “No Grace”, the former describing a dangerous woman who’s hurt the narrator bad (“You bashed my head in and now it hurts to think” he says), while the closer “No Grace” is hands down the best song on the album by not being afraid to go darker in every way from the songwriting, to the production, to the vocals (again, more on this later).
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom on this album. The middle of the album showcases some more light-hearted tracks with “Middle America” and “Waiting On The Water”, the latter of which is ironically even humorous in its delivery. Again, for a debut album this is solid songwriting all around. I especially enjoyed how the album even wrapped itself around a theme rather than just being a collection of songs.
You know, for a band that describes themselves as country, rock, and soul, there’s a surprising amount of great pedal steel on this album courtesy of Jay Miller. Honestly, it does a lot to highlight many of these tracks. It’s perfect for the sadder songs like “Where Do You Go?” and “Wish You Well”, and I especially enjoyed Chris Riser’s playful bass guitar riffs on the former track as well as “Liza Jane”.
Now if I were to nitpick with this album, I would say the production is a good place to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice all throughout, but I have to say, I’m a bit spoiled after hearing “No Grace”. With its dark Western like opening and darker sound all throughout, especially with that blazing electric guitar solo, it makes me wish they had experimented a bit more with the production on this album. Heck, “What Have You Done?” already has a country-rock vibe to it, why not go a little darker with the sound? Especially when the lyrics already do enough to highlight a darker vibe. Most of the album grounds itself in classic country territory with plenty of pedal steel all throughout and the occasional moments of a rock or soul vibe, and honestly it can start to run together after a bit. And that’s different from saying the production is bad mind you. It’s actually quite good. I just feel that it has the potential to be even greater.
Caleb Keith is an interesting vocalist to talk about. Not necessarily a powerhouse vocally, but he’s got the sort of melancholic tone that really does a lot to highlight more somber tracks like “Where Do You Go?” or even grittier, angrier tracks like “No Grace” (see why I said these songs were the complete package now?). The same can be said for “Wish You Well”, and “Liza Jane”. There’s an investment to these songs that showcases years of hard work and care.
On the flip side, this more natural melancholic tone can kind of make brighter sounding songs such as “Marie”, “Waiting On The Water”, and “Middle America” feel a little more somber than the songs are really intended to be. I’m not feeling the same spark from the songs that I feel like I should. That’s not necessarily a knock on Caleb. It’s just more of a testament towards how much the sadder songs really do stand out.
At the end of the day, Between Late and Lonesome really is a strong start for Caleb Keith and the Calaveras. It’s a debut album, so there’s expected to be a few bumps. The great part of it all is that the band seem to already be on their way to grounding themselves in a style that’s unique and whole. At eight tracks long, this album will certainly go by quickly, but the songs themselves will be sure to stick with you after. Again, the songwriting is damn strong and the production is on its way to becoming something strong as well. Between Late and Lonesome is a good album that proves they’re a band to watch, and I believe the best is yet to come for these guys.
Caleb Keith – Vocals
Mark Callahan – Lead Guitar
Jay Miller – Pedal Steel
Chris Romano – Drums
Chris Riser – Bass Guitar