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  Amelia's Boot
Artist:  Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet 
Label: Fundamental Records
Time: 15 tracks/52:27 min.

The Urban Hillbilly Quartet has always dazzled audiences and record buyers with its fine command of a wide range of musical styles.  Amelia's Boot finds the band taking chances, stretching further beyond their Americana roots to paint with some new colors, deftly adding jazz, soul, blues, and even a splash of doo-wop harmony to their canvas. 

Back away from the "shuffle" button.  Songs are clustered by feel and a handful of tasty instrumentals serve as transitions between the album's moods. 

After a brief statement of the title tune opens the record, a clattering typewriter is joined by a distorted electric guitar before the whole band crashes in on "Words/Wings," a soaring plea to "let words be your wings tonight."  "Helplessly" follows, a gorgeous pop song held together with strings, a chucka-chucka banjo figure, and a sing-along "I want you back" chorus.  "100 Years" employs a droning Americana feel to reflect on the opening of the 20th century and wonders if we'll have learned anything by the time the 22nd rolls around

"Puckís Blues" coolly announces the jazzy segment of the album, blending electric piano and muted trumpet with nifty acoustic bass work, recalling late 50ís Miles and Monk.  (Itís a shame that as a segue, itís an all-too-brief 1:50.)  The electric piano and muted trumpet hang around for "Need to Love" and the band adds horn blasts, Greg Tippettís fuzzy, funky bass line, some screeching guitar lines, Sena Thompsonís whispers and wailing backup vocals and Brandtís Beat-poet rapping.  Jeremy Szopinskiís wah-wah guitar subtly underpins the acoustic guitar ballad "More Blue," which features a pretty, understated flugelhorn solo. 

A pair of outstanding fiddle-driven tunes bookend the next section, which bears the most similar sound to earlier UHQ records.  Even so, during one of the tempo shifts in "Sunshower," they surprise by slipping into a doo-wop gear before heading back to a thrash-bluegrass climax.  "Shapes" is a hand-clapping, foot stomping, folksy romp.       

The album's concluding movement is a suite of songs reflecting Brandt's struggle with the unexpected death of a close friend. On "Ghost," with Tom Waits-like clanking and hammering under a swampy blues guitar, the distorted, echoed vocal questions, fears, and lashes out.  The poignant, tremolo guitar-drenched "Tim" finds him standing at the casket running through his conflicting emotions, and "Go Well" wraps the suite with a assertive send-off and some resolution: 

Iíll sing your song, my friend, into the night 
Moon shine in my eye, Iíll see you in the light.
The title track uses acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo and fiddle to provide a tender coda. 

This is easily UHQ's finest record to date, which is not a shot at their previous work.  Not surprisingly, the bandís chops are impeccable throughout and their forays into new musical territory show no signs of hesitancy.  Brandtís songwriting continues to mature and his lead vocals show better phrasing ability and greater confidence in finding the sound of his own voice, most likely the 
fruit of a year on tour. 

It's only early March, but Amelia's Boot is the first major contender for "Best of 2002" lists. 

Dave Draeger 03/10/2002

The first time I heard of the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, it was from a friend who had seen them in concert and likened them to Havalina Rail Co.  From this album, that seems to be about the closest comparison possible, although direct comparisons are difficult, if not impossible here.

After all, UHQ, like Havalina, is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole.  Are they a rock band?  Definitely.  Folk?  Sure.  Jazz?  Maybe.  Country? Almost.  Punk?  You bet.

However, what is possible to say about this album is that despite the variety of styles, despite the mixing of instrumental and vocal tracks, the album has a flow and a storyline of sorts to it.  The album begins with a series of laments on the state of the world-- "100 Years" is a track right along the lines of such respected artists as Bill Mallonee and Bruce Cockburn, with its mixture of strong, politically tinged, spirtually driven lyrics and folk-rock stylings.

Then the focus shifts to our "Need To Love," with its catchy, jazzy stylings.  The lack of love makes us "More Blue," but we wind up in the excitement of the "Sunshower," an up-tempo punkabilly track, complete with 50s-style vocals in the bridge.

The album finishes with some memories of lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Eric Brandt's friend Tim, who died unexpectedly a few years ago.  This gives the whole of the album a feeling of loss.  However, this is not loss without hope.  The instrumental, "Amelia's Boot" ends the album with the hope which bursts out from time to time throughout.

This is a brilliant work of art, navigating adeptly through its various styles, with Brandt's solid vocals helping to make the overall album work out.  This might be a hard album to write about, but it is certainly not a hard album to listen to.

Alex Klages 4/25/2002



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