On the Ropes
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Let’s get the obvious line out of the way early: the Honeycutters, they are contenders.
That’s the second last boxing reference I’ll allow through.
Over the past several years, Asheville, NC has rivaled Austin, Nashville, and Memphis producing roots music acts of superior quality. Tellico, Red June, Town Mountain, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Jane Kramer are but a handful of the acts calling Asheville and the surrounding area home, and all have released outstanding albums that I’ve had the pleasure to review: no doubt, there are others that could be added to the list.
It isn’t a competition, of course, but the Honeycutters’ On the Ropes is the best of the lot I’ve heard. And that is saying something.
Their previous release, Me Oh My, came out last year and it was just short of amazing. A blend of authentic country and roots influences, the Honeycutters produced a recording that filling the summer with lively music that had substance percolating beneath the surface. On the Ropes tops it, delivering a TKO (sorry) based on energy, rhythm, and rhymes.
Fronted by Amanda Anne Platt, the Honeycutters offer up country sounds that have a bit of rock ‘n’ roll push, a combination that enhances rather than detracts from their honky-tonk foundation. Their instrumental interplay is excellent, and Platt has an incredible voice, as powerful as needed and as tender as desired. There exists an intimacy within these songs, all but one written by Platt, and that intensity allows the songs (and their performance) to make personal connections with listeners.
The Dixie Chicks seem a reasonable comparison. Playfully rambunctious and justly pointed, a song like “Let’s Get Drunk” resonates: “…and if the ship is really sinking what’s the use in waiting til it’s sunk? Baby, we’re already drinking, so we might as well get drunk.”
Similarly, “The Handbook” provides a twisted perspective on all things Cupid and Valentine’s: “Sure, I like flowers, I like chocolates, I like a man with real deep pockets…” leads into a song that suggests that love and affection have their place, but lust is as important: “You don’t have to ask to kiss me, I like it when you taste like whiskey.”
In fine country tradition, alcohol also makes an appearance in the album’s catchy lead, title track and the outstanding closer “Barmaid’s Blues.”
These four songs are the ones that would, in a proper and just world, rise to the top of the country radio airplay charts, encouraging folks from all walks of life to purchase On the Ropes. The stream of richness runs deeper than just a handful of songs.
Platt’s voice is fair magical. Clearly annunciated, every word is infused with poetic loveliness, made all the more appealing for the slight twang that causes syllables to rise and fall at the end of lines. Like Joy Lynn White once upon a time and Zoe Muth more recently, Pratt can sing of desperation and despair while retaining pride of steel. As she did previously with “Better Woman,” “Me Oh My,” “When Bitter Met Sweet,” and “Texas ’81,” throughout On the Ropes Pratt delivers personal devastation that touches universally.
Platt deserves the accolades she receives, but the band is more than a vehicle for her talents. Matthew Smith’s steel and electric guitar contributes to the ‘outlaw’ vibe the album possesses, while the rhythm section of Rick Cooper (basses) and John Milligan (drums and percussion) provide the drive. Mandolinist Tal Taylor gets in his licks, and on a song like “Piece of Heaven” he is allowed room to shade things in his direction.
No doubt Guy Clark has been on my mind a little too much this week, but when Platt sings “Holding onto broken dishes, birthday candles and their wishes gathering dust on the window sill—flowers dying on the front porch, faded as the dress you once wore handing in the closet still,” (“Useless Memories”) I sense a little of the Nashville songwriting dean in the mix.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has likely been covered enough times during the past decade; still, the Honeycutters inject life into a song that has had all emotional intensity wrung from it.
The Honeycutters pull no punches (okay, I lied) with On the Ropes. It is as consistent, listenable, and enjoyable album of Americana as one could hope to encounter.