So. So, I think I know Jerome Wincek and the Old Hats. Upon getting their new album Like a Magnet, I know what I’m already going to hear. Like Breece D'J Pancake, Wincek's lyrics take the Appalachian gothic and update them a bit. Like Flannery o'connor, he’s a more than a little interested in moments of epiphany and redemption through pain, and like the Infamous Stringdusters or the Punch Brothers, he and his band play what might be called neo-bluegrass.
But. But, The Old Hats’s fish has grown legs. The slickly produced Like a Magnet suggests an evolutionary jump. The album starts off with “Off My Feet” a compressed old-timey sounding waltz that sound so like it it’s coming out of a Radiola and then segues into the rockabilly “78”.
It’s a fantastically energetic album and almost all the new tricks work. “Hey! Those are women!” my wife said as we listened to the album in the car. Wincek has brought on female backup singers for several numbers which rounds out the sound and contributes to the layered sound on numbers like the title track.
Wincek, who is always been deeply interested in exploring the sound and feel of the Northwestern Pennsylvania region name-drops locales like “The North Side” (of Oil City one presumes, not Pittsburgh and song which practically begs for a Theremin) and “The Stanchion”, a bar in Oil City.
Unlike prior albums, Wincek isn’t afraid to layer on the electronic. I had heard “The Intranet Man” several times acoustically live and it never really clicked with me. But here, on the album, The Old Hats layer a keyboard and a Kraut rock beat that transforms and improves it.
“Red Like Fire”, is the stand out track - the one I’ve been including on CD mixes for friends. “Red” includes keyboards and an overall big arena sound sound that sounds pulled from an 80s John Hughes’ flick (I mean that in a good way).
That isn’t to say that the Old Hats have left their roots (music). Think of it this way.
My home is 154 years old. A piffle in the larger sense, but fairly odd for an American residence. When my wife moved in, we both agreed that we were living in a home, not a museum. We work on respecting the structure, but not trying to keep it as I would have been in 1865. So, we have things like electricity, indoor plumbing and central air because, well, I think those things are spiffy. Our floors are original and if one dropped a marble at one end of the foyer hall it would follow a crazily eccentric path to the other.
Some would suggest that a historic structure should be kept pristine and while I agree in some ways (I think that aluminum siding is a crime against humanity) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving your mark on the place where you live, while keeping in consideration the nature and feel of it.
And that’s what The Old Hats have done on tracks like “Clear Sky Blues” where they capture a gutbucket sound with minimal updating while a song like “The Stanchion”, a garage-y rave up, pays homage to a completely different small town tradition – that of “We’ve got two guitars and a drum, let’s make a band!”
Wincek’s power as a lyricist continue to develop as well. On Like A Magnet, he’s creating lyrics that could stand alone as narrative poems, publishable in any number of litmags. Take a look at this trope from “On the North Side”:
…i've traded for this aluminum crown
in a room on the north side of town.
a car that could fit nineteen clowns
just drove itself into the ground.
a bag and a dollar, well pay no mind.
a boy and his dragon with billowed sails
i've traded for this cheap merry-go-round
in a room on the north side of town.
Taken one by one, the language is impressive, but there’s a grander sweep to the album as well. It’s not a rock opera by any standards, but not exactly a concept album either. On their facebook page, they refer to themselves as “hillbilly theatrical pop” and that might best wrap it up. Thematically there aren’t any misses – the album works best as a full listen through. Loss, sadness, melancholy and a sense of being lost in space (personal, not outer) reveal themselves through stories of broken relationships with damaged people who try to dislodge those sticky memories from the chambers of their mind with too much booze and mindless pleasure. there's no nostalgia here:
hanging round the house just watching you regress
is something one might say is as depressing as it gets
it's like a magnet sucking everything that glimmers from my soul
and sticking it to something that is out of my control . . .
i could endeavor to engulf your enlightened eschatology
with empathetic eyes and ears embracing your existence
in the east it's past eleven. i entreat you to embody
this exacting and excruciating evaluation
Wincek and the Old Hats could have just taken the bluegrass house and mowed the lawn and thrown on some aluminum siding in hopes of a quick sale. But, instead. they’ve undertaken the hard, buy difficult work of growth. I’ll let Wincek have the last word, As “The Giver” (track 13) relates, “
ooh, darlin' it ain't easy.
it's a job worth every penny.
ooh, darlin' don't you see that
it's not the getting but the giving.
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