One of the more interesting traditions of country music has been its professional stagecraft. More than just about any other style of modern music, there’s a sense that the performers approach their craft in a workmanlike manner. The same goes in the studio – a feel of slick veneer and presentation. When the ‘alt-country’ movement erupted in the late 80s, it did so in the wake of punk’s clarion call of authenticity-above-all-else and since bands like Uncle Tupelo were just as influenced by Roy Acuff as Black Flag, it created an interesting clash of cultures. The type of stage and studio craft celebrated by country music just didn’t fly in the face of sneering, judgmental listeners raised to question the cred of any music that sounded that well done.
The Bayonets from Winston-Salem, North Carolina are a perfect example of when a band gets the balance right. Driver is the band’s fourth album and it sees them continuing an evolution of equal measures of craft and passion. It helps that the band solidified prior to the release of 2010’s Snake River Canyon with the addition of guitarist Philip Pledger. Driver seems to be the payoff – a record rich with immaculately constructed roots rock that sounds aimed for an arena, but without losing the warm and loose feel inherent in their music.
There are a lot of familiar tropes here – opener “Triumph” uses the titular motorcycle as its narrator’s means of escape to name one – but it’s an unabashed ownership of those worn paths that makes the music work so well. Musicians like Josh Ritter have made remarkable runs in the last decade by revisiting and exploring familiar styles of roots music in well written ways and the Bayonets tread a similar territory. “Tail Lights” starts out as a piano driven mid-tempo rocker that escalates into a bridge that builds guitar on top of guitar on top of guitar into an explosive finish. Both “Don’t Look Away” and “Lasso’d” are ballads centered around gorgeous harmonies in the former and some gorgeous plaintive guitar work in the latter. “Flickering Lantern Low” and “She’s Not Failed Me Yet” exemplify the big stadium sound that the album seems to be aiming for.
With only ten songs and a running time just over 40 minutes, Driver hits all its marks – opening roar to closing reflection – and does so in a way that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Far too many bands seem to forget the elegant perfection of an album restricted to the old running time of a single 12″ vinyl record. The Bayonets, clearly, have not. words/ j neas