Heat rises: Futurebirds keep the South on top – Columbia Daily Tribune | Columbia Missouri: After Hours

By Aarik Danielsen / adanielsen@columbiatribune.com | 815-1731

There have always been great rock ’n’ roll bands from the American South. But, at this particular moment, a special renaissance is taking place as young Southern bands, taking their cues from now-veteran acts such as Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, perform a shotgun wedding of muscular guitar rock and more nuanced approaches to the form

Oxford’s Water Liars uses the structures of early rock and soul as a foundation on which to lay staggering guitars.

Alabama’s Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires write blistering, blue-collar anthems.

Stationed just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky., Indiana band Houndmouth represents the accessible, indie-chic side of the movement.

Hailing from one of the great American music towns, Athens, Ga., Futurebirds also live at the vanguard of the new Southern rock.

Fluent in multiple musical languages, the band creates seamless country-rock songs that get their breath and being from ringing pedal steel and a reverb daze.

The band’s third album, “Hotel Parties,” is its finest work yet and a document of difficult transitions and tensions.

It is a coming-of-age record in the most mature sense, as the band tries to reconcile playing a young man’s game with responsibilities that might be closer than they appear in the rearview mirror of a tour van.

The six-piece suitably frames these concerns with its most focused sound yet.

Guitarist Thomas Johnson said the band took “into consideration how people actually listen to music, how we ourselves listen to music.”

Songs that might have rambled on in the past were sanded down; temptations to overdo it instrumentally were side-stepped to create more space within songs.

The members of Futurebirds didn’t write with visions of hit songs in their heads, Johnson said, but wanted to avoid any possibility of boring others with ideas that were only interesting to them.

Ideally, a listener would finish a song, then want to hear it again, rather than skipping it because it went on and on, he said.

A hallmark of the record — and the whole Futurebirds sound — is the interplay between lead guitar parts played by Johnson and frontman Carter King and the sounds Dennis Love coaxes from the pedal steel.

This time out, the band especially concentrated on creating “natural motion” between those instruments, Johnson said.

King’s misty vocals will no doubt remind listeners of My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses, but Futurebirds cannot be pegged down to one set of influences.

From a guitarist’s point of view, Johnson said the band can drift toward Neil Young — playing “sloppy, distorted,” dynamic solos — or the build of a band such as Deerhunter; Johnson also referenced the “spacey, ethereal” playing of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood as significant.

The band nimbly toes a line between atmospheric and aggressive sounds; it creates enveloping backdrops but is unafraid to throw a wrenching guitar solo into the mix.

There is the sense that a song is never content to be just one thing or fit into one easy category.

That is appropriate, given the record’s lyrical content. Songs such as “Twentyseven,” “Rodeo” and the title track describe adult growing pains; the latter fits squarely within a tradition of road-weary rock songs — think Journey’s “Faithfully” or “The Load Out” by Jackson Browne.

Early in the life cycle of a band, it is easy for the road to become the central feature of life; other prospects — marriage, family, stability — are treated like far-off dreams, Johnson said.

“You get to a point where … you’re sacrificing some of the other things that you thought you wanted to do this,” he added.

Questions about how to navigate these seemingly competing visions of life inform the record: “Is it fair to ask all the other people around you, that rely on you or that are with you, to make the same sacrifices you’re making?” Johnson said.

“Hotel Parties” is the band’s best effort to make sense of these questions, to steer clear of hardening its hearts or making the sorts of comparisons that can come with outside pressures and others’ timelines, Johnson said.

Wherever band members might go, Futurebirds is keenly aware of where it is from. Johnson described Athens as a place of musical opportunities and mutual support.

The wider success of homegrown bands is not a burden, something to live up to, but a blessing. Futurebirds’ experience has been that, at every stage of a band’s career, it can run into another group from home.

“We were fresh, but Dead Confederate was bigger than us. And The Whigs were bigger than them. And the Truckers were bigger than them. Deerhunter was bigger than them and R.E.M. was … up there at the very top of the food chain,” he said.

Playing with many of those bands allowed Futurebirds’ talents to be cultivated, nurtured, encouraged.

The biggest message a band takes away from growing up in Athens, Johnson noted, is that it is OK to be yourself, to be as weird or normal as you want to be.

As you try to be yourself musically, you end up discovering who you really are, he said.

That sort of self-discovery is a theme that runs throughout “Hotel Parties” and, given the band’s upbringing, is something it can be confident will happen.

Source: Heat rises: Futurebirds keep the South on top – Columbia Daily Tribune | Columbia Missouri: After Hours