You know when you see a band starting out on their musical journey and you watch them grow in confidence and see the audience grow with them and become hooked on their infectious humour and catchy twist on rock music, you go from feeling like a proud parent to a nervous parent when they record their first album. You know they have the skills, you’ve seen them up close and personal but an album, a debut album MUST be right. This is your marker, your line in the sand, get this wrong and it’s a real struggle to regain momentum, so when the debut album, Pantomime Villains, from The Outlaw Orchestra finally arrives, those are the exact feelings I have. Like a kid at Christmas, will Santa have brought me exactly what I want (a Johnny 7 in case you’re interested) or will it be heartbreak…again (another sandalwood talc set)
Early signs are good, even the title is wonderful and fitting, Pantomime Villains, I smile at that and can feel the pride building up already…the album artwork, not important for some but VERY important for this music buyer. I own 100s of albums from the 70s based solely on great cover art….this fits perfectly and the depiction of an old school theatre with stage sign informing us who the next act are, fills me with more joy…but albums are more than packaging, at the end of the day, it will rise or fall on the strength of the music.
Can The Outlaw Orchestra actually transfer their humour, their musicianship, their stagecraft, their lovability factor to a debut album? They can.
From the moment the opening bars of Take a Bow hits you in the face your heart is pounding, your fur has risen and you have a big gormless smile on your face like you just unwrapped a Johnny 7 at Christmas. The band themselves call their brand of music ‘Heavy Grass’ and it’s easy to see why. Heavy riffs, a thumping rhythm section and sexy as chuff banjo give all of the feel of bluegrass and country with the muscle of rock underpinning it all.
Anyone that has seen the Orchestra live will see some familiar favourites on Pantomime Villains with Chicken Fried Snake and Too much Willie Nelson recounting funny tales with more than a smidge of truth in them and in the case of the glorious It Happened Again, a tale that too many of us can empathise with. Who hasn’t bought one more guitar, album, pair of shoes or T Shirt than they should have done…even though they didn’t need them? I’ve bought way too many of all of those things.
It’s nice to see familiar favourites on an album like this but the new songs have a lot to stack up against and it’s often a tall order. In songs like Jumpin Jive and Arabia are future favourites and clearly set to become audience favourites. Jumpin Jive could well be my favourite track on the album, in fact, one of my favourite songs of the year. This song alone epitomises the energy, zest and fun The Outlaw Orchestra harness and bring to everything they do. It’s a whirling dervish of a song and I defy anyone not to be tapping their feet by the end and actually wishing they could jive.
The musicianship on that track alone is sublime, let alone it’s catchiness but that carries throughout the whole album and they prove they are no one-trick pony with the Tom Waites-esque Voodoo Queen and sublime Hanging Tree, the latter being a tune to either dance to like no one is watching or to use as getaway music.
In these songs and indeed the album as a whole they hold the essence of the Deep South and Americana in every note and by the end, you rub your sunburnt neck, put on your Daisy Dukes and give in to your inner redneck.
When you listen to an album, or when I listen to an album, I like to feel as though I’ve been on a journey. That journey can take many twists and turns but the order in which I listen to the tracks is important for that journey and far too often bands don’t give it any thought. This is a perfectly laid out journey for me…it has highs, and lows (in tempo) and twists and turns galore and it finishes with arguably the best yet from The Outlaw Orchestra…yeah I know I said that about Jumpin’ Jive…I’ve changed my mind in that short space of time…and I might again in ten minutes but for now, Send Some Whiskey Home is a perfect finale to Pantomime Villains and another change in tempo at just the right time and the introduction of a female voice lifts the whole song.
The long wistful fade-out is perfect. You need it having been put through the wringer with the rest of the album but as it disappears into the distance it makes you want more…it makes you want to listen again, as though already you’re missing an old friend. Back in the day, I’d have been up like lightning to turn the record over and start it all over again and I wait with eager anticipation for the day Pantomime Villains is released on Vinyl.
Make no mistake about this, this album may get your toes tappin’, it may make you smile, it may get lodged as a series of catchy as chuff earworms but do not underestimate this album. Don’t think it’s lightweight because of that, it’s far from it. This is a serious contender for album of the year.
If you are one of those CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale) types that take their music very seriously, one of those that wear a Geography teacher’s jacket with leather elbow patches and likes to stroke your chin and sigh and harrumph at regular intervals whilst listening to music then this might not be for you, not yet anyway. Learn to smile first. Learn to enjoy music for all of its glorious highs and lows. Learn to relax, to get in tune with what you’re hearing….THEN come back and prepare yourself for the pure joy of listening to Pantomime Villains. Let it infect you. Throw out ya jacket, take ya hand away from ya chin, put down your real ale and pick up a Jaeger bomb because that strange expression is what we call a smile…welcome to The Outlaw Orchestra and Pantomime Villains.