CD Review: Packway Handle Band

When you think of bluegrass, two images come to mind: either a bunch of old guys playing boring twangy tunes from Appalachia or the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Packway Handle Band is one of the bright lights of bluegrass, taking everything you know about the genre and turning it on its head. They’re funny, talented musicians who know how to put on one hell of a show. The band’s latest offering What Are We Gonna Do Now? is a slight departure from their past works but still maintains all the Packway trademarks.

As always, a little snippet about the artwork. PHB has had some pretty interesting cover art mostly revolving around their condenser mic, the banjos, or farm scenes. This collage of pictures of the band captures a bit of what it’s like to be at a Packway show. It’s a joyous occasion, full of stomping, singing, and general rousing of the rabble.

Walking Disaster would not have been my first choice for a lead off track (the last one would’ve been better) but “Disaster” serves its purpose by introducing you to the main instruments and stylings of the band.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a trademark Packway track. Plenty of harmonies, really strong lyrical content, and many, many strings. It’s a toe tapper and will be stuck in your head soon.

Outskirts is a lovely track but doesn’t go anywhere. In a way, that’s the strength it holds. You can throw the track on during a rainy day and quickly be lulled to sleep by the gentle harmonies without having to spare the rest of the content a second thought. “It’s ok if you just want to be…” indeed.

What is a Packway Handle? might’ve benefited from being a bit more upbeat but if you ever need a dose of PHB humor, turn this one up. The song reviews many of the questions the band gets asked all the time. The nods to the common frustrations of being asked to play “Devil Went Down to Georgia” or “Rocky Top” (oh god NO), are nice touches. But what never gets answered is the main question: What the hell is a packway handle?!

Off My Knees is far more twangy and country than the previous tracks. The constant refrain of “We don’t know where we’re going” really hammers home the boys’ ability to create instantly catchy hooks and harmonies.

Horse Vs. Technology “Twiddly” would be how I’d describe this one. There’s some complicated counter-melodic picking and strumming going on, with each instrument taking a small turn in the spotlight. It’s an instrumental but it rarely gets boring. Unless you just don’t like instrumentals…

I’m Glad You’ve Got My Priorities So Straight is my favorite track, probably because it reminds me of “Satan’s in Space.” There’s a dry humor that only Packway can do and “Priorities” is a shining example of it. Part kiss-off, part sarcastic lament, this could be any husband’s theme song.

Josie is not really noteworthy either way. It’s a by the numbers, average Packway song.

Tired is really slow. Another really average song, it follows the lead from “Outskirts” and continues this mid-tempo movement the album has.

Lord Baltimore starts off as a really country-esque song, depending heavily on the guitar strum and a quiet, forced vocal. When the harmonies kick in after the first verse, the song improves a bit, giving you the full story behind Lord Baltimore and his tendencies.

What Are We Gonna Do Now? finally shows what Packway is capable of. A rousing sing-along, you’ll be able to chant along with the chorus from the get go. Makes you want to find a bonfire somewhere and swing the whisky around while square dancing.

What Are We Gonna Do Now? is a lot slower than most of Packway’s material and benefits from a slicker production than usual. But along with those things comes a few faults. The live energy that makes Packway so enjoyable doesn’t show through here until the very last track, though the second song comes close. This release is a lot stronger than most but suffers from a flat sound both production wise and in song choice. It’s a decent album but I feel that they have done better work before. I give it a 6 out of 10. Best heard when standing on the porch in the summer, overlooking the cornfields.

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