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Tuesday, September 19, 2017 
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Oakley Hall
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Second Guessing
Amish Recordings
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How can someone who hates country as much as I do like Second Guessing so much?

There's no escaping the traditional roots of this second album from Oakley Hall. They're ever-present — in the slightly slackened hoedown beats, in the keening swoops of fiddle, in the mournful harmonies and all-natural lyrical content. If a record could chew tobacco, this one would, no question; never mind that they're all from Brooklyn.

Yet while a lot of country music seems, to me, to be hobbled by a nostalgia for simpler times that never were, this one is not. There's a razor edge to the guitars, a muscle to the melodies, an unflinching honesty in both words and music that keeps Second Guessing genuine. Like Son Volt's Trace or Neil Young's Harvest Moon, this is country tempered by fire and hardened by rock, all impurities reduced to ash. It's not sentimental at all. There are beer cans in the weeds and criminals in the family tree. There are women saying "Why don't you fuck off?" to errant males. It's a natural world, but not a sanitized one, where a slow, rocking beat might be all that keeps you going as life and love fall apart.

Like Steve Wynn's Miracle Three (but in a completely different way), Oakley Hall lace their country tunes with the drone of psyche, unleashing two long, psychotropic marathons in "Hiway" and "Volume Rambler." "Hiway," which opens the album, has the Doppler whine of long-distance travel, a circling, mesmerizing mesh of guitar, bass and drums under the sweet-sour tangle of male-female harmonies. It's a sort of triumph-over-adversity song, its exuberant yelps and spinning fiddle solo all joy in the midst of troubling lyrics. "Volume Rambler" is sparer, just drums and bass for the first half minute, joined abruptly by stinging, bending electrified guitar. The song stretches out, in no hurry at all to move along. The singing comes in only after a minute and a half — time enough, in a cut that lasts eight and a half minutes — and there are long mind-changing interludes of guitar, drum and bass scattered throughout.

Fans of Oakley Hall's self-titled album will notice that the band's sound is a bit tighter, a bit more electric here. There have been significant lineup changes since the debut. Pat Sullivan (once Papa Crazee from Oneida), pedal steel guitarist Fred Wallace and fiddle player Claudia Mogel return for Second Guessing, while drummer and bass player Greg Anderson and Jesse Barnes are new. Another recruit, singer Rachel Cox (ex of the Podunks and the Ospreys), makes an impact in cuts like "Blaze," where her rich country alto gives the band a defiantly female-centric cast. As before, Mogel's violin playing is wonderful, a wild, unpredictable element in the band's most traditional songs.

The best song, though, is "Cod'ine," a slow-rocking lament shot through with electricity, a song that's often covered but, for me at least, now belongs to Oakley Hall. It starts with a weather-beaten murmur and builds slowly with heartbreaking harmonies and a shuffling beat, with monstrous guitar notes exploding out of the sad, sad chorus. "It's real, lord it's real, one more time," Pat Sullivan wails, as the guitar crashes through and the drums pound out a funeral cadence. And real is exactly what it is.


by Jennifer Kelly




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