By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
SLR was born of the Belly in 1998 when songwriter/guitarist Kirk Rundstrom and bassist Jeff Eaton decided to take an acoustic turn with banjoist David Lawrence. The band's current lineup is the foursome of Rundstrom, Eaton, banjoist Eric Mardis and songwriter/mandolinist Wayne Gottstine. Notice, no drummer.
Split Lip Rayfield has been regularly blazing stages across the Southwest -- and the rest of the country, for that matter -- with few pauses since its self-titled debut appeared in 1998. Though the title of the band's latest, Never Make It Home, speaks of the life of a band on the run, SLR's sound has never been closer to its native Kansas.
Never Make It Home goes far to free SLR of the cumbersome genre hybrids -- among them "corebilly," "thrashgrass," "newgrass" and "post-punk progressive bluegrass" -- it earned with Split Lip Rayfield and In the Mud. In contrast, Never Make It Home offers a richer variety of musical interpretation and storytelling than on previous releases, and moves the band closer to their old country home than they've ever been. While the evident growth and slower pace might disappoint those more enamored of SLR's thrash than its 'grass, the expanded context may serve to introduce the band to a broader audience, one primed by popular soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the success of artists like Alison Krauss and Leftover Salmon.
Initially, the band came off as something of another novelty insurgent country act -- a Midwest Metallica gone hayseed. Except that these guys are for real -- they no longer need to cash in on the notoriety of a one-string bass dubbed "Stitchgiver" -- a homemade contraption built from the gas tank of a '65 Ford pickup. Never Make It Home seals the deal.
However, fans of the group's earlier efforts needn't worry, as the rawkus, lightning-fast pickin' and tight-as-hell time changes are still in place. And the women are still alternately lovin', leavin', savin' and cheatin' their men.
The opening track, a reference to Rundstrom's pilgrimage east from Kansas, "Movin' to Virginia" sets a friendly, rollicking pace, hooking you straight-out with an infectious chorus delivered in delicious four-part harmony. True to form, banjo and mandolin are trading licks by the second verse. Elsewhere, the title track has something of the smell of "Flowers on the Wall" and features a kazoo solo congested by muddy water -- or, more likely, cheap beer.
SLR races through Ed Jackson's classic bluegrass standard "Love Please Come Home" in a hasty minute and a half, before slowing to a stroll on "Used to Call Me Baby," a tender lament as befitting Son Volt as SLR. Except Son Volt couldn't pull off those harmonies.
The obvious standout, the song that has it all on this record, is "Kiss of Death," a four-minute string of side-stitching tales trailing a decade of dead cars, the chorus warning, "Give me the keys and see, the car is history." It's classic Split Lip Rayfield.
Never Make It Home offers a more compassionate, even affectionate rendering of Split Lip's musical roots, and the album is played and recorded with characteristic skill and clarity. Definitely the work of a band used to "drinkin' whiskey in the morning and wine at night."