Photo: Kennon Evett
There was a time when the city of Houston was filled with the notes of hot country nights, and cold beers at the honky tonk. That era when Mickey Gilley had his own beer joint and even his own brand of cold brew. It made sense for our hometown to capitalize on the imagery that others once had, and some who still do; of life in the Bayou City. However, those times have changed as country music has become more lacklustre and formulaic. Gone are the bands who you felt lived the life they’re singing about only to be replaced by a slicker format of the genre. But, if you’ve been paying attention; Houston has a new crop of country artists who are paving the path for those who live their tunes, and who you believe actually have. One of those artists, is Houston’s Grand Old Grizzly. This four piece has that certain something that reminds you immediately of Rhett Miller and Dale Watson…guys who wouldn’t honk the honk if they didn’t tonk the tonk. On their anticipated new album, “Cosmonada,” Grand Old Grizzly bring those hot country nights back in full swing by stretching their songwriting legs, complete with a mix of rock and traditional folk, making it a sound that’s all their own.
I should preface this by saying that part of the allure to this band, is that they’ve always had a hint of more rock than country to their sound. That being said, I’ve always found that sometimes, no matter how rock you are; you can’t hide what’s inside. That’s what this album feels like…like a band trying to keep it real which means they’re making the songs they make, no matter what you’d call it. The album opens with the very uptempo, and almost Billy Gibbons twang of “Red Hideaway.” The song immediately has a likeable quality where the band pops the tune along with a mix of Southern charm and accurately placed hooks. The song makes you feel like you’re getting away for the weekend to hopefully pass out on the sand of a nearby beach. The band follows this up with the “Being There” era Wilco sounding “The Numbered Streets.” The way that singer Will Thomas’ vocals mesh with the group vocals in the background is almost as magical as the way that the band mixes shades of seventies rock with these country elements like pedal steel and the hook heavy twang of the rhythm guitar. The band slows it down a bit with the third track, “Travelin’,” where they almost emulate Bob Dylan when he started to go electric. There’s a subtle drum beat from drummer Chris Lewis as a piano helps segue the track into an almost Jackson Browne meets Fleetwood Mac styled chorus.
By the time you make it to the barn burning vibe of the quick paced fourth song, “Did She Really?” I would think that you are heavily invested in the album. The band does some of that “leg stretching” by taking the listener on these “little runs” that feel like individual songs on their own. Those little jams bring the band into a whole new light as there’s a multitude of instrumentation that feels like they’re at a modern day hoedown. The fifth track, “Piltdown Hoax” has the feeling of a song penned by Jay Farrar with a hint of nineties alt pop. That’s not a bad thing, as it just adds to the depth of the band as a whole. “Adrenalina” rolls it’s way into a more rockabilly meets fifties sound, that’s more like Link Wray than anything else on the album. This is followed by the singer songwriter opening to “Eyes,” before it goes into a larger scaled song, where the backing vocals from bassist Mark Riddell and guitarist Paul Beebe make the song that much more deep and lush. The band takes a more Western Swing route with the track “The Rundowners,” where there’s such a big band feeling to the song that it almost made me look for a dance partner. A couple of tracks later, the rambling nature of “Yellow Fading Sun” just adds to the strength of these guys as a cohesive unit. The instrumental tune sounds like something that would either open or close a spaghetti western. It almost echoes the Reverend Horton Heat song, “Big Sky,” but in a more soft and subtle way. They follow it with the swingy and old school country vibe of “Grizzly’s Tune.” Though the song is sung in first person, it definitely feels like the track is as group effort based as it gets. There are no less than three to four hooks throughout the song, that could easily become a great way for these guys to open or close out a set.
The band finishes the album with the middle ground stride of the sing-a-long styled “Bitterest of Ends.” There’s a real feeling of finalization to the album with this track, though the straightforward personality of “Cosmonada” demands a second listen. I was definitely pleased as well as surprised with how complex this album was. Though I’ve always been a fan of this band, I can say that there’s definite growth from a band who was already doing things ahead of others in their genre. The way they mix up four or five styles per song is something that makes you revel in their song craft, while you enjoy the album more and more with every listen. You can hear “Cosmonada” live as well as grab your own copy when they perform at Fitzgerald’s on Friday February 20th.