OUT OF THE SHADOWS Bandleader Greg Klein steps out from the Dark Hollow.
As a string band, Dark Hollow Bottling Company were an awfully good rock band. In the same alternative-roots mode of Uncle Tupelo, bringing an edge to the twang, they had grit under their fingernails and never indulged in that false nostalgia of old-time rural life.
When they asked, “Isn’t that why we dream?,” it was fair to wonder whether they’d just ceased dreaming altogether.
Much of that spirit continues in Dark Hollow singer Greg Klein’s new project, GK and the Right of Way, if with a more traditional rock instrumentation: guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. No more banjos or mandos or any of that stringband feel on the 10-song Watching in My Mind.
If anything, they’re more in the vein of the Boneheads or the Blend, countrified rock with an acoustic guitar usually at the front. There’s something very Maine about them, even if they’re not actually referencing place names and shouting it from the rooftops.
And Klein’s not done mining contemporary America for moody ruminations on helplessness and the weary feeling that each year is supposed to be better than the last, but isn’t.
“Freedom Rock” certainly hits close to the bone for aging Gen X-ers who watched TV like it was oxygen and eyed their aging-hippy parents more than a little askance even as they found themselves eventually digging the same music and weed. With John Clavette bleeding organ all over the place and Drew Wyman putting in a bass bounce like Cheryl Crow leaving Las Vegas, Klein sketches out the path toward middle age: “He signed her chest / It said, ‘Wishing you all the best’ / But so many wishes have come and gone since.”
Klein’s characters are real like those in a Russell Banks novel, not caricatures of the working poor, but normal people who are simply flawed (sometimes fatally so).
He does indulge in sentiment, though. “Little Man” is a syrupy sweet letter to his son—“You’re too young to fill with rage”—reflected in ‘60s pop and an air of peeking in someone’s window. Similarly, “Vegetarian in Meatland” might be full of well-constructed narrative verses and a hook like “Satisfaction,” but there’s a silliness to it that feels like an in-joke with his daughter (however, high marks all around for rhyming “slaughter” and “daughter” and not having it be particularly macabre).
Sometimes, the arrangement and instrumentation just don’t seem to fit that material. “33” opens oddly, with a thin beat that’s just about the sound that opens Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World,” and is more upbeat than you’re expecting for a nostalgic ode to vinyl. “Six Feet Under,” with a jarring nine-note traincrash of expectancy, hopes that “the bottom for you isn’t six feet under” in an extremely sunshiney way.
Maybe that’s the point? Engineered by Todd Hutchisen, just like the last Dark Hollow record, it’s as though the grit has been replaced by that smile you put on when you don’t have any choice but to grin and bear it. The string section that infuses “Change” is classic whistling past the graveyard, the high you had on the night Obama was elected brought down into a crushing acceptance: “You can’t change all the salt in the sea,” and “my dad said, ‘Son, it’s always been that way’.”