The Grisly Hand
Flesh & Gold (self-released)
A guitar lick playfully references Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” less than a minute into the opening track of the Grisly Hand’s Flesh & Gold.
It’s the first of several nods to classic rock songs on the Kansas City ensemble’s new album. Yet the six members of the Grisly Hand aren’t mere copycats. Their most potent work equals the hallowed music of their inspirations.
Once a lovably scruffy group that didn’t attempt to hide its rough edges, the Grisly Hand has grown up. Jimmy Fitzner and Lauren Krum’s rapturous harmonies are now even more delectable, while the band’s crafty songwriting is increasingly astute.
The Grisly Hand was founded in 2009 but didn’t come until its own until 2013’s Country Singles, notable for a reckless inventiveness that earned it a place among the best albums by a Kansas City-based band in the last decade.
Consequently, Flesh & Gold is the victim of raised expectations. The band’s rugged charm has been replaced with admirable professionalism, but this is nonetheless a maddeningly inconsistent record that balances stunning highs with a few disappointing lapses into mediocrity.
Fitzner and Krum’s unusual role reversal helps make “Regrets On Parting” the album’s best song. Unlike the dynamics of classic duos such as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris or George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Fitzner’s vocals are tender and vulnerable while Krum sounds hardened and callous. A three-piece horn section lends heft that makes the song sound as if it belongs on The Last Waltz, the Band’s 1978 all-star farewell concert; it’s one of several compositions here that make heartbreak seem like a desirable condition.
The album opener, “Get In Line, Stranger” is a cautionary warning about an irresistible siren. Like most of the songs on Flesh & Gold, it addresses the struggles of maintaining a long-term relationship. Lyrics about the complexities of adult romance are adorned by a swirling production capped by that “Like a Rolling Stone” reference.
On what is essentially a rock album, “Satan Ain’t Real” harkens back to the band’s country roots to refute Satan Is Real, a 1959 gospel album by the Louvin Brothers. Although the members of the Grisly Hand undoubtedly revere the Louvin Brothers, the elongated song is a condescending dismissal of the Louvins’ faith.
“Ease On Up” also overstays its welcome. A gorgeous guitar sound that evokes Dire Straits’ 1979 hit “Sultans of Swing” can’t salvage the generic jam.
Much better are the taut “Regina,” a twangy rock song that could be an homage to the 1975 Fleetwood Mac song “World Turning,” and the bruising rocker “Scrappy Dobbins.”
Flesh & Gold is the initial installment of a two-part project scheduled to be completed next year. Its 36-minute running time may seem slight, but the Grisly Hand has packed a lifetime of emotional depth and musical maturity into the imperfect album.
Bill Brownlee's writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.