The Pine Hill Haints, of Northern Alabama, U.S.A., could be quickly described and sorted as something like: The Clash without their amps playing Hank Williams songs on Woody Guthrie’s grave; I imagine it’s something like a slightly-more-rundown headstone near the Felice Brothers and Felice brother-in-law A.A. Bondy. Case closed, grave dug, etc. But in the ground below the surfaces of To Win or To Lose is an excellent record that connects the lines between country and punk without losing either genre’s powerful, primitive roots.
The Haints’ second K Records LP is at times passionate and defeated, despairing and obscurely hopeful, which makes sense, really; only the weariest among us can let themselves be so deeply consoled by a future in which “My Bones Are Gonna Rise Again,” a song which begins as a banjo-led gypsy bop and falls into a passionately group-sung chorus; that track immediately follows the self-assured doubt of “Never Gonna Die,” a haunted house anthem that tries to step around the fear of death by simply refusing to give it any space. The world and music of the Haints is confused because it’s confusing; there is a crack in everything, to quote Leonard Cohen, but sometimes it’s hard to see the light filtering through.
To Win or To Lose starts off strong, with a steam-hiss intro of shattering guitars and snare-drum smacks. The song builds on a creosote-scented bedrock of chugging drums and bass while the guitars float in and out of tune, crying randomly with the combustion of fuel into power. A railroad-crossing bell pulls the intro into “Not So Lucky and the Invisible Kid,” a two-minute throttle of a country song, before falling into the excellent “Charley Horse,” which manages a guitar solo, shouted breakdown, and a serious anthem of a bridge in exactly one minute—all of this done with minimal electric guitar and drums, all of which stings and punches in the right ways. These short bursts of energy are where the Haints truly haunt, rolling with energy and soul like a downhill hearse.
While the spit-shined punk tracks are the standouts, the Haints prove that they can tackle big city noir on “Revenge of the Spider-Web Boy” and try an ill-advised round of bonesy calypso on “Bordello Blackwidow.” The record’s true standout, though, is “Never Cry,” a patiently-orchestrated guitar-and-accordion runner that spells out the quiet despair of hardened hearts. “I never got famous, I just got dead broke,” grumbles singer Jamie Barrier. “You can never cry,” goes the chorus, and it’s not a clarion for the Tough, but the shaken-head woe of the broken. Intense and immediate pain is one thing to deal with, but what do you do with a lifetime of further-pressed bad luck? “Ta-loo-rye-eye, you can never cry.” It’s not that you’re not allowed; it’s that you just can’t. But of course, the accordion groans as it gets pulled apart, and the sound is still made beautiful.
There’s a sense of resignation on To Win or To Lose, too, that the world isn’t really going to get any better, and it seems to grant the group the freedom to walk around a little bit; if the world itself can’t be bothered to treat us kind, we’d better cast around some and find what will. It’s no perfect country—the heartache is very real—but it is the place where the Pine Hill Haints find themselves. It’s populated by Theremin squeals; Cajun funeral dirges; robbers, cowards, desperate folks, and trains to carry them all away to the this-world space between north and south, faith and doubt, city and country, yesterday and today—a temporary layover, but no less real for its transience. words/ m. garner