Album Review: Mark Stuart and The Bastard Sons – Bend In The Road
That Shakespeare fella might have been on to something. They may have a new band name, but West Coast workhorses Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons, formerly The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, are still releasing solid country music. They’re based out of Austin, Texas, these days (Stuart relocated following BSOJC’s excellent 2005 album Mile Markers), but Mark and the guys spend most of their time criss-crossing the country playing any venue that’ll let them plug in. Bend in the Road reflects this wanderlust: by the second song, Stuart is singing “I’ve always been a restless, ramblin’ man/Never stayed long in any town/Never could hold a good job down/I’ve always been a restless, ramblin’ man.” It’s a shame winter’s moving in, because this is a record made for flying down the highway, windows down and stereo up.
Stuart wrote all the songs on the record save one: a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” opens the album. Although there’s nothing particularly unique about this version, it’s still pretty enjoyable, and it sets the optimistic, freewheeling tone for the following 11 tracks. If Stuart is an old chunk of coal, then Bend in the Road is a gem.
Perhaps dropping Johnny Cash from their band’s name has allowed Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons the freedom to experiment with their sound a little bit. It’s not a monumental shift from their previous incarnation, but it’s enough for a casual listener to take notice. Bend in the Road boasts a sound that’s more rugged and more rocking than Mile Markers, with regional influences ranging from Appalachia to Albuquerque. “Restless Ramblin’ Man,” one of the album’s highlights, is a catchy, bluegrassy tune bolstered by fiddle and sprightly banjo, while “Everything’s Goin’ My Way” and the Rolling Stones-esque “Seven Miles to Memphis” might fit in at some rowdy, bluesy roadhouse where Patrick Swayze is the bouncer and the band performs behind chicken wire.
For the most part, Bend in the Road is rock-influenced country done fast and loud; however, the album’s pair of ballads shouldn’t be ignored simply because they lack facemelting electric guitar. “Lonestar, Lovestruck Blues,” a gentle mandolin-and-accordion lullaby set under a starry Texas sky, is one of the sweetest love songs you’ll hear all year, even though it trots out all the old clichés about love making everything look new and wishing time would stand still as you watch your loved one sleep. Cautiously optimistic closing track “Carolina” bookends “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” with a similar desire for personal change, but it’s the weakest song on the record. Though it’s well-written, it drags, making its 4:23 length feel twice as long. Thus Bend in the Road ends with a whimper; despite this slight misstep, it’s one of the better alt-country albums of the past year.
Bend in the Road is a fitting title for this new venture. One can never tell what’s beyond the next curve, but based on the quality music provided here, it looks like smooth roads and blue skies for Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons.
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