Red dirt, one of country’s most criminally underrated subgenres, has been catching fire with audiences across America in the late 2010’s, and few bands have been able to capture the sheer versatility of the style’s sound as well as Shane Smith & the Saints do (on a regular basis, I might add). Their latest album, the Mark Needham-produced Hail Mary, is garnering accolades from across the pop spectrum this summer, and after sitting down with it for an uninterrupted listening session this past week, I came to understand why. Hail Mary is, largely, sonic dim sum with a southwestern twist; Shane Smith cherry-picks from the great American songbook and formulates a stylish brand of contemporary country in this record that appeals as much to the genre’s old guard as it does an Millennial music fans.
The breakneck “Whirlwind” sports some very comely grooves, and while the polish on the guitar parts isn’t all that different from what we hear in “Last Train to Heaven,” it doesn’t take a professional critic to appreciate the unique complexities that both of these songs contain. Some of this material – notably the softer tracks like “Little Bird,” “We Were Something,” “The End” – have a more refined feel than the abrasive rock stuff that greets us in “Heaven Knows” and later on in the title track, but all of these songs mesh together whether shuffled or played straight through as the band intended. Instead of hitting us with big riffs and then following up with a lull in the overdrive from song to song, Shane Smith & the Saints present us with Hail Mary in mildly operatic movements, which adds to the cinematic quality of the music substantially.
Although it feels like a double album, this record barely breaks the 45 minute mark, which is rather telling about how engaging its tracks can be. “The Hardest Part” has hypnotic abilities that transcend its black and white construction, and as far as I’m concerned, it is definitive evidence that keeping it simple can often produce the most dynamic results in the studio, regardless of things like genre or the nature of the band’s recording style. Shane Smith doesn’t shortchange us on the lyrical luster in tracks like “Parliament Smoke” and “Oklahoma City,” but he wisely refrains from indulging in the tired platitudes, metaphors and poetic enigmas that have plagued the output of his contemporaries in the last decade.
I’ve been listening to Shane Smith & the Saints for a while now, and I’ll admit that I came into this review expecting a lot out of Hail Mary, both from compositional and production perspectives. That said, they hit a grand slam with these eleven songs, each of which could probably be released as successful singles. There’s a lot to be excited about in country music at the moment, but I’ve got my eye on this band more than I do any other currently making noise in the underground (or the mainstream, for that matter). Hail Mary is no-filler red dirt, and a testament to the talents of the musicians responsible for its creation.
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