Hillbillies need a make-over. If people see you as farting, fiddling, dungarees wearing lowlifes, who drink Jim Beam from the bottle while their brown gums are showing repulsively, even Hill & Knowlton would have second thoughts about taking the case. That’s why the Kentucky collective Villebillies came rolling out of the hills, boom sticks cocked, and ready to conquer the country with their self-named debut.
It was quite a surprise to see Motown as the main record label for this debut. When the Korean war vet and ex-professional boxing champion Berry Gordy created the Motown sound in the early sixties, he intended his, mostly black, musicians to be presentable to a predominantly suburbian white audience. If you sign a group of white musicans from rural America who want to present themselves to an urban audience with black music preferences, you are reversing Motown history.
Villebillies comprises of ten stage musicians. The line-up has three guitar players, one keyboard player, one drummer, and an impressive five vocalists. With a group that big, I couldn’t imagine how five vocalists/MC’s can move across the stage effectively. Jurassic 5 always do their thing in firing squad setup, and they can only manage because Chali2Na is the only big man in the group. If you have five honkeys trying to call a tune, it is pretty difficult for the listener to tell you apart.
A large percentage of the band mentions OutKast as one of their main musical influences. After the short introduction, that admiration is clearly heard throughout the fast-paced “Whiskey.” An intricate pattern of blues guitar riffs, cool keyboard keys, and well timed background vocals are complemented by hurried lyrics about satisfied whiskey stupors southern style:
“Buzzing like a bumble
Start some trouble
Chipping on a beer
Who put that there?
No fear, man I’m not scared
Low gear, step it up a notch
Vodka, bourbon, gin and scotch
Liquor store, reserved spot
Pull right up in the parking lot”
Obligatory party antics with a punk rock attitude. Well attuned, but lacking the originality that got OutKast a global fan base. None of the five MC’s/vocalists have enough personality or diction to stand out from the rest. It remains unclear who is doing what, and because of the large vocal representation, the desire to find out quickly fades away.
“Grass Roots” should be an ode to their home state Kentucky, but the falsely sung choruses, and overly sentimental lyrics about “having a conversation with real people,” and talking about “the only place where I can be alone” almost literally made me sick to the stomach. All those hick stereotypes come out of the closet, and spoil the initial surprise of the band’s sound.
After “Grass Roots” Villebillies change into a rock band with a rap edge even more, with harmonicas and banjos to emphasize their country roots even stronger. The only highlight after “Whiskey” is the piano-laden “Greatest Moment,” about a friend’s suicide, which also is the farewell to this twelve song album. This song is a lot more in depth, and shows they have potential to go beyond their regular partyboy outfit:
“Here’s all I want to say
What in the world does it take
To put that gun up to your face?
And pull the trigger that way?
And not even leave a note
No goodbye, no verse
Like a man without a name
Like a man who is cursed”
Musically, the band members definitely put some weight on the scale. Some elements of this ‘country meets urban’ debut album have a certain charm to them, but at the same time, some lyrics made my toes curl up so bad I got a cramp in my left big toe. If they focus a bit more on their musical skills instead of proving they’re more than redneck farm boys, they could actually make this work. For hip-hop heads, this Kentucky sound is too much of a stretch, and maybe only confirms the image Villebillies so desperately want to avoid.