It takes bottle to put a successful band on hiatus. But then, it takes bottle to be in a band like Trampled By Turtles in the first place. People like boxes, places where they can neatly put things, and that’s what most bands give. From the Death Metal band who has a logo that you can’t even read, to the rock band with the signature sound, you know what to expect.
Trampled By Turtles, have never been that band. maybe because they always felt like outsiders from Minnesota in the same way that The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, also from the state, writes songs that don’t sound like anyone else’s either, TBT have ploughed their own furrow with scant regard for trends or genre for two decades.
So on this, their first album for four years, they play rock n roll – and there’s nothing better to describe it – that said, its rock n roll, as ever with them, with no drums and precious little in the way of electric guitar – like obvious contemporaries The Old Crow Medicine Show.
“Life On The Open Road” begins its tales of life as a rambler in a bar. “Kelly’s Bar” to be accurate. Violins screech and it’s a bluegrass hoedown to all intents and purposes, but if it is its one shot through with a real sadness: “I was seeing double, so I went out walking” sings frontman Dave Simonett at one point: “and I didn’t know if I’d ever get back.”
“We All Get Lonely” is more overtly country, but again, you don’t have to look too far to find a real dark heart beating here, and perhaps appropriately for a band who got back together on the day Tom Petty died and re-connected by listening to “like, six Petty albums straight” as Simonett puts it, there is a real singer-songwriter feel about most of the tracks here.
“The Middle” is all American, with its tales of “double-wides” and there is a suggestion or two of Wilco here. Not to mention a wonderful fiddle solo.
“Thank You John Steinbeck” is dustbowl depression made flesh, and there is a Celtic touch or two, “Annihilate” has harmonies at odds with the lyrics, while the glorious “Right Back Where We Started” is as catchy as you like, and one of those songs you find on Springsteen bootlegs and wish that he’d put on the damn record.
The title track has the same lugubrious nature as Whiskeytown at the best, and is one of the most fragile, stripped back things here. “Blood In The Water” is almost punk rock – no, really – sub two minutes but fully formed, while “I Went To Hollywood” is the undisputed jewel in this crown. This is TBT revelling in their outsider status, with tongue no doubt in cheek Simonett sings: “I thought that I might meet a movie star, I ended up flat drunk in the Rainbow bar.” Before the payoff: “I went to Hollywood, but I showed up too late.”
If they’re bitter, it doesn’t show. Instead, they have other regrets. “I’m Not There Anymore” is the sound of looking back, but the sounds will only truly make sense when you’re alone in the small hours, but its all good for the soul anyway. As they point out themselves on the ending “I Learn The Hard Way”, “I learn the hard way or no way at all.”
A record that is as diverse as you’d want from a band that’s played festivals as disparate as Coachella and Lollapalooza and were mainstream enough to appear on the Letterman show twice. This new record is all of that and more, celebrating their past but also looking to the future. The break has found them refreshed and ready, because “Life Is Good On The Open Road” is absolutely brilliant.