Futurebirds, Hampton’s Lullaby
The hallowed sense of continuity that makes this record feel authentically tempered and totally new
All anybody wants to do these days is cast themselves in a remake of The Last Waltz. Martin Scorsese's concert film of the Band's final bow in 1976 is the reason the Hold Steady exists (Craig Finn testified to the movie's powerful influence when he formed the group), and it is the not-so-secret fantasy collectively harbored by Jim James, Conor Oberst and M. Ward. The Last Waltz isn't about a single sound or image — say, Van Morrison's tight, glittery purple suit — but rather an illustration of how rock 'n' roll is connected to all of American folk and soul music, and how transcendent it can be when everybody in the building believes in its power.
Invoking The Last Waltz is a monumentally presumptuous lead-in to an assessment of the debut album by Futurebirds, an Athens, Georgia, six-piece that winds up chasing the Americana ghost on its own terms. Dripping with pedal-steel guitar and midtempo twang, Hampton's Lullaby can at times sound like a modern take on Gram Parsons's cosmic country noodling. Los Angeles outfit Beachwood Sparks attempted this same feat a decade ago, but their approach was too slavish — right down to the last rhinestone on their Nudie suits — to the plunk of honky-tonk guitars. Futurebirds, on the other hand, aren't afraid to tweak the recipe, imparting a Far East tone to opener "Johnny Utah" via a kyoto-country riff that eases into an easy, psychedelic drift. A sense of humor helps, too: Johnny Utah is the name of Keanu Reeves's character in Point Break ("You're sayin' the FBI's gonna pay me to learn to surf?"), and the absurd backstory to "Aquarium Floor" seems to be a school field trip gone awry.
Hampton's Lullaby isn't all horseplay, however. Futurebirds wheel out the barroom piano for way-down-in-the-hole ballads "APO" and "Man With No Knees," both as wrenching and earnest as Jason Molina's handiwork with Magnolia Electric Co. And when the band gets around to rocking seriously, it happens with swift, anthemic efficiency on the back-to-back "Yur Not Ded" and "Happy Animals." It doesn't often happen that an album's highlight is a segue from one song to the next, but it occurs here between those two tracks. Guitar squall bleeds into the charge of drums, sounding like nothing the Band would ever play but achieving the hallowed sense of continuity that makes this record feel both authentically tempered and totally new.