Album: Hank Williams III, "Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town" (Megaforce/Hank 3)
When a guy decides to release three albums on the same day, including one built around speed metal and cattle calls, he's either crazy or he's Hank Williams III. Sometimes he's both.
Freed from the "constraints" of his long-running record deal with Curb Records (Williams released five albums in eight years for the label before the uneasy relationship -- which included, at times, lawsuits running both directions -- ultimately went down in flames), Hank Sr.'s grandson and the son of Bocephus wastes no time in reaffirming his outlaw credentials. In addition to the two countrified discs of "Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town," Hank 3 is also issuing the above-mentioned speed metal/tribute to cattle auctions set, "3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin'," as well as a doom metal set, "Attention Deficit Domination," which is more in line with Williams' frequent side forays into the genre with his band Assjack.
It's the country legacy represented on "Ghost to a Ghost" that will fascinate casual listeners, however even though Williams seems to draw his largest fanbase from cranked-up rednecks into his twisted brand of metalbilly. Because Hank Williams was born with a terrible burden: an almost eerie resemblance, physically and vocally, to his iconic late grandfather Hank Sr., otherwise known as the father of modern country and western music.
But it isn't "pure" country he's necessarily after here; although the record kicks off with the twangy, fiddle-happy semi-title track "Gutter Town" and the delightfully hayseed "Day By Day," Williams steers the ship back toward his own preferred mode of expression by track three, "Ridin' the Wave," a bizarre and mutant melding of speed metal, polka and cowboy music, replete with shredding guitar solo and X-Games-for-life lyrical slant ("We're not even close to what you'd call a normal crowd," he croons over a musical Hieronymus Bosch backdrop of accordions, guitars and fiddles akimbo. "We're ridin' the ultimate wave.")
The innuendo-ridden "Don't You Wanna" lurches back toward the saloon-rock rebel mode perfected by Williams' father, before the poignant and unexpected "Ray Lawrence Jr." brings in the titular underground outlaw singer himself for a pair of acoustic tunes under the same rubric, Williams' high and reedy twang offering a poignant counter to Lawrence's gruff, parched vocals.
From this point forward things only get weirder. "Time to Die" is baroque gypsy punk, more Camper Van Beethoven than Waylon Jennings, "Troopers Hollar" blends ferociously menacing banjo plucking with fast, auctioneer-style patter and samples of Williams' dog Trooper barking (who features on not one but two of the album's cuts), and "Ghost to a Ghost" ends the first disc with sweeping orchestral gestures, pathos-ridden lyrics ("Being thrown out at birth is my cursed luck") and guest shots from none other than Tom Waits and Les Claypool.
"Gutter Stomp" blends cajun and klezmer -- one of many occasions where a Middle Eastern influence creeps into the album. It almost feels like one of Led Zeppelin's half-brilliant, half-stupid early career "tributes" to British blues-folk legend Roy Harper. Various skits begin to pepper the album at this point, many of them strange and creepy. "The Dirt Road," in particular, feels haunted and discomfited ("I'm only gonna take ya to the end of th' holler," says a strangely augmented, childlike voice while ghoulish moaning and rumbling engine noises swirl hopelessly around the listener. "I hope you know what you're doin'.") Following several additional oddball takes on inventing a new genre (Horror Cajun? Klezmercore?), Williams drops back into traditional ground for Eddie Pleasant's "I Promised" but just as quickly spins out of the groove a few songs later -- "The Low Line" is not remarkably far removed from Raymond Raposa's psychedelic folk projects with Castanets.
It's a an acquired taste, they'll say, and Williams himself will probably tell you that himself; everything comes with a warning label in Hank 3's world. But it seems obvious, listening to the Dr. Demento-style a capella of the album's closing cut, "With the Ship," that picking up the mantle of his grandfather and his father either intimidates the man or disinterests him. The truth is probably somewhere between those poles, but in any case it all seems a shame: when Williams really connects with his bloodline and his heritage, like on the rollicking "I'll Be Gone," which comes somewhere near the end of the often-grueling 137 minutes of music on this double-set, you catch an almost sideways glimmer of the artist as a fully realized man. But just a glimmer: don't blink or you'll miss it. Just enough to let you know what he can do.
Just enough to let you know that he knows what he can do, too.