Shane Smith quietly counts in the string play that forms the melodic centerpiece of “The Hardest Part,” and in less than five seconds time, floods our stereo speakers with a warmth that is something of trademark in Hail Mary, his latest album with his band the Saints. The music patiently unfolds before us, with every note resonating from the acoustic guitars hanging in the air above us like clouds in the sky before disappearing into the darkness from which they first arose. Much like the poetic “The End,” which closes out Hail Mary, “The Hardest Part” strikes a harmonious balance between folk-rock and pastoral country music, with Smith’s passionate, red dirt-style vocal acting as a linchpin in this melting pot of tonality and unvarnished emotion. “Heaven Knows” gets the ball rolling in a haze of distortion and atonal feedback, encapsulating the understated rock n’ roll attitude of the album in a formidable opening salvo of overdriven strings. The Saints will revisit the bluesy dirge of this first cut later on in “Parliament Smoke,” but to be frank, there isn’t a song on this record that doesn’t carry a certain amount of outlawish rebellion – bucolic acoustic material included.

URL: http://www.shanesmithmusic.com/

“Last Train to Heaven” slides into view on the whim of a yearning harmony that slowly but surely lays the groundwork for an anthemic country-rock power ballad. It’s not quite as rousing as “We’ll Never Know” is, although the two share a richly textured lyricism that is steeped in the kind of maturity we just didn’t hear on Geronimo. Smith’s vocal has a crushing emotionality to it that is rivaled only by the pristinely produced string section behind him, and even though it has more of an Americana flavor than some of the other songs here do, it isn’t a complete departure from the overall tone of Hail Mary. The title track is possibly the most forceful composition you’re going to hear on this LP, but it isn’t defined by the enormity of its massive blues riffs alone. Much like “Heaven Knows,” this is a multifaceted expression of sonic might, but without its viciously churning lyrical construction, I don’t know that it would be the 100% juggernaut that it ultimately is here.

There are a few tracks in Hail Mary, such as “Little Bird,” that could have used a little more kick from the EQ, but a couple of cosmetic issues aside, all of these songs are really well-produced. “Oklahoma City,” the vibrant “Whirlwind,” and “We Were Something” employ different means of shaking the audience to our core, but their meticulously arranged instrumental parts are mixed with a physicality that makes both tracks feel like statement songs. No matter which angle we analyze Hail Mary from, there’s no debating that this is a profoundly upgraded look for Shane Smith & the Saints, who came close to capturing the monolithic tonality of this LP in past efforts but, in my opinion, never hit the mark quite as well as they do here. This is thought-provoking, unrestrictive country/folk with a rock n’ roll pulse, and perhaps one of the most appealing releases of its kind available this June.

I-TUNES: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/shane-smith-the-saints/600661523

Michael Rand

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