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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Constructing Authenticity

    The Band of Heathens: ‘One Foot in the Ether’ (BOH Records; bandofheathens.com)

    NeedtoBreathe: ‘The Outsiders’ (Atlantic Records)

    Being authentic is a hallmark trait of millennials. Be true to yourself. Keep it real. It’s so central to millennial identity that marketers have discovered that they can sell almost anything if they brand it as authentic. Pre-torn jeans? Weathered flannel shirts? Soap! Food and beverages! Hair dyes!

    This drive for authenticity has always been a major current of pop music. Consider rock’s initial primal authenticity against the smoothly manufactured crooning of Crosby (that would be Bing, not David), or Perry Como ‘- or punk’s hallowed rage against the disco machine.

    Rock-roots, garage bands, Americana ‘- they all describe an attempt to get at some musical essence that is distinctly American. Rarely from big eastern cities, Americana is usually white and Southern, with occasional folk frills by banjos and fiddles. Even urban cosmopolitans believe that the if the ‘soul’ of America lies in its industrial cities, teeming with ethnic and racial minorities, the ‘heart’ of the country lies in the countryside.

    Two bands I’ve been listening to a lot lately illustrate the promise and pitfalls of the genre. They’re white, Southern-souled, smart rubes ‘- rural cosmoplitans that are acoustically electric. That is, they embrace all the contradictions of America.

    NeedtoBreathe and The Band of Heathens have all the credentials to be credibly authentic. Both are from the rural south (NeedtoBreathe from South Carolina, and The Band of Heathens from Texas). Both feature some jangly and twangy guitars, achingly earnest vocals and solid roots rhythms. Both honed their chops by relentless touring as bar bands, building a fan base slowly and methodically, the old fashioned way: by playing really great music.

    The evidence of this is abundant on their new CD’s. ‘ ‘The Outsiders’ is NeedtoBreathe’s third release, with major label backing. Bear and Bo Rinehart (very authentic American names, eh?) and their bandmates teamed up with a trio of producers who’ve worked on other iconic authentic bands like Wilco and Dave Matthews Band.

    A few tracks stand out. ‘These Hard Times’ (a theme song for the new TV show ‘Mercy’) suggests at a secular spirituality, ‘small-c’ Christian faith propelled by a driving sound and anthemic chorus. ‘Stones Under Rushing Water’ is a sweet ballad, featuring a tremulous vocal by Bear, joined in by Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. And ‘Something Beautiful,’ the disc’s first single, is bouncy and serious, anthemic and plaintive.

    The Band of Heathens captured my attention last year. Their debut was one of the most arresting I’d heard, lining the boundary between rock and country in a way that pandered to neither. After success on ‘Austin City Limits’ and comparisons to ‘Black Crowes,’ their follow-up veers more solidly into rockified country than countrified rock. Their current tour schedule bears this out.

    While NeedtoBreathe is playing all over the northeast, BOH is keeping to Texas, venturing as far away as Arkansas and Colorado, but that’s about it.

    On their newest release ‘One Foot in the Ether,’ they are more polished, more muscular and more mainstream. Anchored solidly in the rock-infused country music, they’re sounding as if poised to open for Tim McGraw. To be sure, they’re a little trippier and a little hippier, as the opening track suggests. But often they strive for a NASCAR sensibility ‘- hard drinking, hard living, cigarette-smoking, with a booze-inflected rasp to their voice.

    On the other hand, there are some tracks that will take your breath away. ‘What’s this World’ is angry and mournful, melodic and sly, with lyrics both biting and emotive. All contradictions intended, they sing: ‘We clean our guns while we turn our cheeks.’

    That’s the thing about constructing an authentically American sound, there’s a unity of opposites, but they’re not oxymoronic. We ‘contain multitudes,’ as Whitman sang. And they don’t get more authentic than Whitman.

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