I couldn’t help but smile when I received the latest Lonesome Brothers CD with a handwritten note from Ray Mason and enclosed in an envelope that had been sent to my old address—from six years ago. Perhaps a good metaphor for the Lonesome Brothers themselves, the package was stamped with various postal rejections and re-directions but, despite its circuitous, roadworn condition, managed to get to my current domicile with its cargo intact.
The first of the band’s albums produced directly by the Lonesome Brothers themselves and engineered by member Jim Armenti, the album is notably different than the previous seven, which were all produced and recorded by local golden-ear Jim Weeks. Despite that, Armenti’s done a fine job at the controls, and perhaps even engendered an even more “down-home” (if that’s possible for the Lonesome Brothers) feel.
The playlist on Check Engine does a great job of switching off between Armenti’s bluegrass-powered mountain folk tunes (“Watch Over Me,” “Puddles”) and Mason’s occasionally deep philosophizing via tight, Tom Petty/NRBQ-flavored pop-rock (“Devastated”).
On both, drummer Tom Shea—perhaps the only one of his kind who claims to have been inspired in childhood by the Lawrence Welk Show—provides drum parts that find a happy pocket of simple, appropriate beats. Both Mason’s and Armenti’s considerable instrumental skills always seem to be perfectly crafted for whatever the musical theme. Notable guest performances include banjo by Phillips Saylor, harmony by Chloey Accardi and sax/horn arrangements by Tom Mankhen (Trailer Park).
Sometimes they mix it up—weaving in a pedal steel part with a staccato power-pop bass line or bringing a more pop-friendly vocal melody into a picky bluegrass bed. The overall effect reminds us that ultimately, all this stuff comes from the same, mostly American place.
When the Lonesomes are the most successful in their blend of early rock and country genres, they either sound like The Replacements or the New Riders of the Purple Sage. So does this band have an identity crisis? Absolutely. But it’s a band that’s completely comfortable in that reality. The Beatles had an equally two-sided creative equation in Lennon and McCartney, whose distinctly different elements they smooshed together quite efficaciously for as many years as they could, and this band’s core creators are a lot closer to each other in feel and attitude than those two ultimately were.
In the end, both draw on blues, country, and, at least to some degree, pop music, and it’s really difficult to decide which of the two bands to like better—Armenti’s relaxed but often healthy-paced mountain-grass or Mason’s ’50s-skeletoned roots rock with masterfully simple pop phrasings. Fortunately, you never have to.•
The Lonesome Brothers perform July 12, 7 p.m., at the Great Falls Discovery Center Coffeehouse, 2 Avenue A, Turners Falls, (413) 863-3221, http://www.greatfallsdiscoverycenter.org; and July 13, 6 p.m., at the Black Birch Vineyard and Winery, 155 Glendale Rd., Southampton, (413) 527-0164, http://www.blackbirchvineyard.com. (Rain date July 14).