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The guys in the Band of Heathens are fond of saying they became a unit by accident. But that’s like saying the Big Bang was an accident. Unplanned, maybe, but hardly random. One might even argue that a kind of destiny was involved. The merger of singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks, with bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman, from their respective solo careers and bands may not be akin to a cosmic explosion, but their current album, One Foot in the Ether, offers irrefutable evidence that they were meant to be together — and have evolved into a solid entity worthy of the comparisons they receive to the Black Crowes, The Band and Little Feat.
One Foot in the Ether, released in September 2009, is the Band of Heathens’ strongest work so far. That’s saying something, considering their last three releases (two live and one studio) brought the band out from relative obscurity to playing 250-plus shows a year for their rabid fan base, as well as a coveted taping for the 35th Anniversary season of the Austin City Limits television program. Both their last album and One Foot in the Ether reached No. 1 on the Americana Music Association Radio chart. The last (eponymous) album earned the band an Americana Music Association Honors & Awards nomination for 2009 New Emerging Artist of the Year, with One Foot in the Ether clinching a 2010 Americana nomination for Best Duo or Group. The group took Best New Band honors at the 2007 Austin Music Awards, shortly after their current lineup came into place as the band morphed from a side-project to a cohesive tight unit. And the band significantly expanded its reach with recent appearances at Lollapalooza, Wakarusa and the Austin City Limits festival.
One listen to One Foot in the Ether makes apparent that the Heathens’ three-front-man approach to writing and performing over the past three years has paid off in the studio. Aside from the confidence necessary to pull off releasing two live albums before releasing a studio album, it’s evident that their unorthodox career strategy suits them well.
“The band doesn’t like to do things safely,” Quist explains about their aversion to using set lists, planned programming, or, for that matter, a planned career path. “Random and Chance might actually be named as extra band members in the liner notes somewhere.”
One Foot in the Ether was unplanned. The Heathens started booking short bursts of studio time in Austin while they were in town, with no producer and no expectations. They would just set up live in one room and push “record.” They weren’t intending to make a full-length album, but the muses felt otherwise. As more and more songs started coming together, the band would layer other textures over the live performances to add depth to the sound. The guys say they were going for a specific sound, but letting things be loose and spontaneous was essential to capturing the group’s essence. As they went deeper into the sessions, the project went from the originally planned (or unplanned) three or four songs to 16 completed songs. “It became apparent that we had a full-length album on our hands and we started honing things down to make a cohesive album,” said Jurdi.
Not given to overly detailed explanations, the Band of Heathens loosely define the sound they’ve achieved on One Foot in the Ether simply as rock ’n’ roll. While the last Heathens album may have been slightly more acoustic and swampier, this album is heavier, both thematically and sonically. It’s muscular with electric guitars, Hammond organs, vintage electric pianos and pill-bottle slides, all fine ingredients for rock ’n’ roll in its purest form.
And rock ’n’ roll is all over this album, in tracks like the Gram-Parsons-meets-Neil-Young stomp “L.A. County Blues” (which pays tribute to the great writer Hunter S. Thompson), the New Orleans/Motown-influenced “Say,” and the Saturday-night gospel-meetin’ showstopper “Shine a Light.” Then there’s the back-alley sounds of “Golden Calf,” which, with a nod to Tom Waits, addresses the darker side of humanity; the hot-off-the-floor funk of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”; and four-on-the-floor six-minute-plus jam “Somebody Tell the Truth.” The hypnotic-sounding closing hymn, “Hey Rider,” is “a call for peace, within and without,” according to Brooks. The album contains one cover, the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune “Look at Miss Ohio.” The record echoes the greats from Dylan to Waits and Townes Van Zandt to Otis Redding, but the band is drawing from the wellspring that is American music to forge something present and immediate and new.
With a five-album record deal offer from one of the major-independent record labels on the table, the Band of Heathens opted to remain indie, releasing One Foot in the Ether on their own BOH Records, just as they released their last self-titled studio album. Brooks explains, “In the current ‘climate change’ of the music business, nobody knows how it is going to work so we are not averse to trying things our own way and experimenting.”
The press has appreciated the Heathens’ approach. Maverick called One Foot in the Ether a “quality album from a quality group.” Blurt said: “An album that echoes their down-home resolve, One Foot in the Ether finds them putting their best foot forward.” The jam band ’zine Honest Tune declared: “One Foot in the Ether is an ever-evolving masterwork that gets better with every replay.” And according to hometown Austin Chronicle, “One Foot in the Ether is sure to reinforce the band's place in the Austin music scene . . . ready-made for sitting on the back porch with a cold beer, a rock ’n’ soul affair evocative of Little Feat, The Band and The Black Crowes.”
Notes Brooks, “We have three distinct writers/singers who share the front but make a unified sound, not unlike some bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the music was what drove the wheel, not the tabloid pop-star personality with a great rack. Don’t get me wrong: everybody loves boobs,” he adds, exhibiting a bit of the band’s characteristic deadpan humor. “The problem is, you can fake tits, but you can’t fake soul.”
No, you can’t fake soul. You just know it when you hear it.