STYLUS | by Justin Cober-Lake, June 26, 2006


The album opens with one of those guitar licks that, depending on your position, is either pop genius or derivative songwriting (I go with the former). It's a hook that you're sure you've heard before, but that you just can't place. Oddly enough for a band in cowboy hats coming from a hacienda surrounded by cacti, the hook isn't country music, but classic soul. The group claims to be "the sound of western soul" and, while plenty of country musicians make the claim, few, if any, truly merge honky tonk with soul music so well.

It certainly doesn't hurt to have Dan Penn as the producer. Penn's history centers around Muscle Shoals, where he produced, played on, or wrote a number of soul classics for artists such as Aretha Franklin. He contributes a few of his tracks to What's Wrong With Right, most notably "Cry Like a Baby," co-written with Spooner Oldham and originally a hit for the Box Tops. The mid-tempo number stays fairly sparse, letting vocalist Chris Gaffney stay at the front while the band fills it brief licks. Only late in the solo do the Hacienda Brothers remind us that we're in Arizona, by bringing in an accordion.

That trick in "Cry Like a Baby" works because of the song's soulfulness, but the album doesn't need reminders to keep us in a country mode. With plentiful steel guitars and western imagery, the album never leaves the country part of its base. "The Last Time" and "If Daddy Don't Sing Danny Boy" dive most heavily into the sound. The latter offers the line "I fought for God and country boys," which, if not delivered so skillfully, could come off as a parody of the genre. The lyrics, by Gaffney, aren't what you might anticipate -- rather than depicting a US boy going off to war, they actually tell of an Irish boxer needing uplift for his match.

The group doesn't shy from sentimentalism of any sort, but they get away with it. "Cowboys to Girls," for example, drips with nostalgia for that moment when a young boy's focus makes the title transition. The song could easily crash under its own affected emotion, but the band keeps the reflection at the level of porch reminiscences rather than overbearing yearning. They also deliver the especially C&W idea in the form of a Motown shuffle, echoing slower Temptations numbers like "Imagination."

Whatever sound the band works in, Gaffney's voice maintains the balance between country honk and Southern soul. While he frequently uses a mild drawl, Gaffney resembles Otis Redding in tone more than anyone with a twang. His phrasing stays relatively tight to the melody, but he works his delivery with subtle, important emphasis on key words. On a track like "Keep It Together," that style enables the chorus to raise the intensity level while the overall volume stays relatively steady. It's Gaffney's vocal work that marks the change by turning what had been precise inflection into the new base level. With no big jump in delivery or emotion, he increases the urgency of the track's titular plea.

That kind of subtlety goes far on an album like this one, and the Hacienda Brothers keep everything in place throughout the disc. That precision keeps the two root genres tightly bound, never allowing the band to veer off too far to either style that they can't swing back smoothly. The resulting album comes off as unique as it is rooted. Remember that opening guitar lick? Genius.