Ward Hayden and the Outliers play catchy, high-voltage, lyrically edgy Americana rock. Their new album Free Country – available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – was written and recorded during the lockdown, although the political content is more subtext than it is central in Hayden’s sharply detailed narratives. He keeps his songs short, sings in an unselfconsciously soulful baritone and likes escape anthems.
The band open with a brisk four-on-the-floor burner, Nothing to Do (For Real This Time), which strongly brings to mind Matt Keating, another great songwriter with a Massachusetts connection:
A stranger in my hometown,
A stranger in my own house
I can’t go home, I burned that bridge, spent my last dime
I’ve got nothing to do for real this time
This is what happens when you wake up
All the cool kids in the class
Just actors in a mask…
The band – Hayden on guitar and vocals, Cody Nilsen on lead guitar and pedal steel, Greg Hall on bass and Josh Kiggans on drums – slow down for Shelly Johnson, a grim salute to the Twin Peaks character. “Muscle and mind are two different things, that’s why smalltown queens rarely keep their kings,” Hayden observes. The outro is priceless.
“It seems the truth no longer matters,” Hayden relates in I’d Die For You, a brisk shuffle fueled by Nilsen’s steel:
Life isn’t like the movies, you think just what you believe,
No matter your perspective
As fate would have it
We’ve got to share reality
Political message cached in a love song, Soviet style – or lockdown-era Massachusetts style.
The band work off a familiar Link Wray riff as Sometimes You Gotta Leave gets underway, twelve-string jangle contrasting with distorted roar and soaring bass, with a big careening guitar outro. Middle Man is part loping, twangy southwestern gothic and part honkytonk: Hayden’s message is carpe diem.
Over a punchy twin-guitar crunch, he contemplates the end of the world – and the heroism that could stop it – in All Gone Mad, a capsule of the ugly early days of the lockdown:
Seriously, I’m asking, as I’ve been thinking
That if you ain’t Babe Ruth then you ain’t Abe Lincoln
You don’t die trying, until you just get old
Then you ride down the road with your blinkers still blinking
Hayden goes back to the carpe diem theme in the escape anthem Bad Time to Quit Drinkin’ – the reference to a famous song by the Who is a typically sardonic touch. Irregardless, a Buddy Holly-ish shuffle, touches on the interminable torture so much of the world has suffered under lockdowns, and the mess future generations will have to clean up:
All we’ve got is the damn tv
Leading us from the path to glory
I don’t want this reality
As Hayden sees it, Indiana is a place where “The devil rocks the cradle, it’s in the soil, in the air and one and all.” He and the band close the record with When the Hammer Falls, a smoldering, swaying number that sounds a lot like the Dream Syndicate. It’s a good bet that producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is responsible for one or more of the noisy guitar multitracks. It’s been a real slow year for rock records, and it may get even slower. Be that what it may, this is one of the best of the bunch.