There’s a certain familiarity to the type of rock & roll the Band of Heathens record, as if someone made you the perfectly curated mix tape of sinewy Rolling Stones rockers, aching Eagles ballads, and Gram Parsons weepers. It’s ironic then that the band called its new album Stranger.
Released in late September, Stranger is a warm, enveloping album with a positive message of understanding and compassion that’s just right for the times — call it “comfort rock.” The incongruous title comes from how the band members saw themselves while making the LP.
While most of the group, including singer-guitarist Gordy Quist, is based in Austin, Ed Jurdi, the five-piece’s other frontman, resides in Asheville, North Carolina. In late 2019, the Band of Heathens left behind Quist’s Austin studio, their de facto clubhouse, for Portland, Oregon, to work with producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, the Avett Brothers).
“We’ve never gone away to live together as a band in a city where we have no family or friends and just make a record like that,” Quist says. “We purposely wanted to change things up geographically and see what happened musically. Little did we know that we’d be isolating ourselves right before a year of forced isolation. Everything was very strange, and [Stranger] just seemed to be an appropriate title for the times and for the work.”
The Band of Heathens showed up in Portland with 30 songs, which they whittled down to 20 before ultimately recording 14. A taut final 10 ended up on Stranger, each of them polished up with Martine’s lush cinematic approach. “We pulled in a string quartet and went for layers, trying to create something that blossoms and blooms and is beautiful,” Quist says.
They best hit that mark with a suite of songs in the middle of the album: the gentle acoustic number “Call Me Gilded,” with its shades of John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers and Promises”; the dissertation on being adrift “South by Somewhere”; and the marvelous road song “Asheville Nashville Austin.” A travelogue celebrating the hotbeds of modern-day Americana music, it’s rich in local imagery, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to the neon-lit Continental Club on Austin’s South Congress.
“It’s a meditation on the idea of chasing songs,” says Jurdi, who when not at home in Asheville or in Austin with the Heathens can be found in Nashville working with his other group, Trigger Hippy. “I’m constantly chasing these little threads of songs and using those places like mileposts where I stop and collect these ideas and put them together.”
While Stranger is the proper follow-up to 2017’s equally solid Duende, the group’s last release was a recreation of Ray Charles‘ 1972 album A Message From the People, anchored by “America the Beautiful.” The decision to record that particular LP underscores the Heathens’ rising call for unity. Fed up with the absence of fact in our political discourse, they wrote the hard-hitting “Truth Left” for Stranger. “There’s silence on the sidelines/as the rift between us deepens,” goes a verse, before the payoff chorus lands: “there ain’t no truth left/we’re getting used to it.”
“I like to believe that we’re not addressing political issues as much as things we see, like the human condition,” says Jurdi. “With ‘Truth Left,’ as a society there’s no basis for what the truth is. With social media culture and the Wild West nature of the online community, you can find any information to support whatever you believe or vice versa. What’s probably more dangerous is you end up in an echo chamber, believing that everyone thinks the same way that you do.”
“The thing that interests me more than going out and telling people our beliefs is reflecting the world around us,” Quist says. “Hopefully we can trigger some self-reflection in each other to all work to get to a better place.”
And if not, the Band of Heathens are happy to go out swinging. They face Armageddon with a drink and a smile in the woozy “Instant Karma”-like number “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow.”
“At a certain point when things are so ridiculous, you’re going to either do one of two things: curl up in a corner and cry, or get on with it and have a chuckle about it. All the while recognizing how dire the situation is,” Jurdi says.
Not that the Band of Heathens have doomsday fantasies. Despite being 15 years into a career as a smoking live band — one they’ve kept Covid from completely derailing with their virtual series Good Time Supper Club — Quist says they’re far from satiated.
“Rock & roll seems to be a young man’s game for sure, because of the lifestyle implications. But I feel like the band just keeps getting better,” he says. “We’ve got this rock & roll machine that’s as good as it’s ever been. We’re just trying to keep creating.”