Reckless Kelly – American Girls and American Jackpot Album Reviews
By Roger Sharman
It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since the glorious ‘Sunset Motel’ first graced the CD player in my house, it really doesn’t seem that long ago. But this week sees the release of not one but two new albums from part of Idaho’s favourite musical family, the Braun’s, Reckless Kelly. They’ve been stalwarts of the Red Dirt scene, veterans even, their first album, ‘Millican’ was released 22 years ago this year, and they’ve been making incredible music ever since then.
This incarnation of Reckless Kelly see’s the guys joined by the considerable talents of ex- Turnpike Troubadour’s Lead Guitarist Ryan Engleman, replacing David Abeyta.
Across the albums there are notable guest appearances from the likes of Gary Clark Jnr, Wade Bowen, Rosie Flores, Jeff Crosby, Charlie Sexton and of course, Willy and Cody’s father, Muzzie Braun.
‘American Jackpot’ had been scheduled to be released in 2019, but after writing and recording had gone so well it was decided to release a double album.
Willy Braun has said of the records “I’ve always wanted to write an America-themed record, but not in some super-political or ‘rah rah rah’ sort of way. I wanted to tell the stories of everyday life, and the kinds of things that nearly everybody experiences growing up in this country.”
‘American Girls’ opens with ‘I Only See You With My Eyes Closed’ which was the first release from both records, back in January, and what a song that is. It’s dreamy and very polished, it’s got a real strong Americana feel to it. Willy is on fine form vocally, with his very distinctive voice. Of the song he said “I wrote the beginning of a second verse on a long van ride after being woken up by the church bells next door in Nuremberg, Germany and out of those lucid dreams where you don’t really know whether you’re awake or not. I wanted the song to have the feel of those same dreams when you drift from one thing to another, so Cody and Charlie Sexton played some spooky ambient stuff on top of Jeff Crosby’s main Guitar track and we faded them all in and out to try to get that lucid half-dreaming half-awake effect. There’s a lot going on but Jim Scott did an excellent job mixing the track to capture the dream-like vibe.”
‘American Girls’ is an upbeat track, full of jangly guitars and harmonies that the boys are famous for, and yes I can vouch that there is nothing like American Girls!
‘All Over Again (Break up Blues) is the first of a number of break up songs on the album. I love the use of the accordion on this track. The lyrics are simple yet straightforward and effective, which is another trait of the band, they don’t overcomplicate things, the message is plain and clear in the vast majority of Reckless Kelly’s songs.
‘Miss Marissa’ is another breakup song, that contains a little play on words. I really enjoy the way that the band use guitar solos in a very clever and subtle way. They tend not to use massive guitar solos, instead they use a number of instruments to build to a crescendo which is quite clever and something that’s done quite rarely these days in my opinion.
‘Lonesome on my Own’ sees the use of pedal steel for the first time on the record, this instantly gives it more of a Country feel. The story around this song is told by Willy; “‘Lonesome on My Own’ was another collaboration with Jeff Crosby as he toured with us playing guitar over the summer of 2019. He wasn’t thrilled with the hook he had, so I dug around in my pile of ideas and came up with ‘Lonesome on My Own’, a line from a song I had never finished. It fitted in pretty well with Crosby’s original idea so we finished it up and tracked it in July. We recorded a version with Jeff playing guitar before he had to fly back to Nashville, but after listening a few times the next day we decided it was too fast and tracked it again. It was a bummer to lose his parts, but the end result was worth the do-over. It became the only song on the album without any lead guitar, a rarity for any RK record. Jeff Queen filled the void with some killer steel guitar and the end result is quite pleasing.”
Next up Suzy Bogguss shares lead vocal duties with Willy on ‘Anyplace That’s Wild’, which has a really country classic feel to it. Cody’s fiddle really comes to the forefront of this track for me along with the pedal steel and harmonica.
‘Lost inside the Groove’ is a lively Rock ‘n’ Roller. Cody’s fiddle is on fire again, in fact he’s even given a little solo during the song, once again substituting the guitar for another instrument for the solo. I can see this song being a real crowd-pleaser, live.
‘No Dancing in Bristol’ sees mandolin, used for the first time on ‘American Girls’, added to the accordion, it gives this song quite a Celtic Folk feel to it. I can imagine people sitting in an Irish pub, knocking back pints of Guinness, swaying and singing along to this song.
Now if you were new to Reckless Kelly and wanted to hear something quite typical of the work they have done in the past, then ‘Don’t Give Up on Love’ is probably the track from this record that I would use as a showcase.
‘Home is Where Your Heart is’ slows things down a tad and signals the end of ‘American Girls’. It’s quite moody in feel, the main track being acoustic guitar, but there’s lots going on as always, subtly, including two-part harmonising and a little slide guitar. It’s a fitting end to this part of the record.
‘American Jackpot’ is kicked off by ‘North American Jackpot’ a song that chronicles American history from the very beginning with the discovery of what is now the USA by the Mayflower, it’s a little political in places but for the most part it’s a song about being an American in this day and age, although I can’t help but feel its done slightly tongue-in-cheek. Jeff Crosby had a hand in the lyrics on the track.
‘Thinkin’ Bout You All Night’ has that laid back, smooth feel that is synonymous with Reckless Kelly and the hook just feels like something that we’ve heard before from Reckless Kelly, and come to love over the course of their career to date.
‘Tom was a Friend of Mine’ tells the story of Willy finding out over the grapevine of the loss of a song-writing friend, and the upset that it causes but hoping that he’s resting in peace in place where he feels free. The fiddle is once again the primary instrument in the solo section of the song and of course the song is strong on harmony.
‘42’ is about Baseball and sees Willy joined by his father Muzzie to pay homage to the 42 Baseball Shirt, which it sounds like Willy used to wear in his younger days, playing for Cooperstown, but don’t quote me on that, I could well be wrong.
‘Mona’ picks up the pace. It’s probably the most ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ of all the tracks spanning both records. It’s going to be a dancefloor filler across the Honky Tonks of the South. Quite unusually for this record it does contain a guitar solo although nothing too extravagant. At the end of the song Willy exclaims “That’s how it’s done” and “Rockin’” as if to pronounce his happiness with the way the song has turned out.
‘Another New Year’s Day’ sounds like more of a track that could have been on ‘American Girls’. The musicianship is quite outstanding on this song, the fiddle and mandolin working quite spectacularly together, they even break into ‘Auld Lang Syne’ momentarily, which naturally is very fitting for the song.
The absolutely glorious ‘Grandpa was a Jack of All Trades’ is a big favourite of mine. It’s probably the most Country sounding track across both records. I don’t know if it’s Grandpa Braun they are giving a shout out to, but if it is, he was a Pearl Harbour Veteran who turned his hand to pretty much everything, a true hero like many folks from that generation. Unfortunately, we are fast approaching the time when there will be nobody left from that era, which makes me incredibly sad. Songs like this will help to keep their memory alive though, all of them, not just Grandpa Braun.
If I was to have a least favourite track from both albums, then I’d probably choose ‘Put on Your Brave Face Mary’. That being said, it’s a deep ode with a political poke at Washington. Musically, it’s appropriately sombre.
‘Company of Kings’ is a rocker, that to me is again another typical Reckless Kelly track.
Finishing off proceedings is ‘Goodbye Colorado’ which is a fitting end to the project, like so many bands, from the area or that have played there, you feel an instant affinity to the state, it’s God’s Country. There is nowhere like the Rockies and Reckless Kelly, originating from Idaho, would, I have no doubt, endorse that statement.
All in all, this is good, solid, Red Dirt, some would say Americana, but I really don’t care too much for the term as it is far too broad. If I put ‘American Girls’ up against ‘American Jackpot’ as albums, my preference is definitely the former. Is this their best work? I think not, and I’m also sure that there are classic albums left in Willy and the Boys. This isn’t a classic, but both very good records nevertheless.
Please note that both albums will only be available digitally until 24th July, due to the current Pandemic, but digitally they are available they are available on Friday.