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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Strong songwriting on display in 'Mergers & Acquisitions'

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sometimes there's something to be said for abandoning witty metaphor and just telling a story.

"Katharine, Don't Fall Off the Wagon," one of several standout track's on Have Gun Will Travel's third record "Mergers & Acquisitions," does just that. No hidden meaning, just a powerful story.

What starts out as a kind of funny song about a waitress working the late shift and putting up with the drunks, quickly takes a turn.

We learn Katharine used to be on the other side of the diner counter, apparently a legend in her town's drinking circles.

"The drunks in the diner all know her by name, saying since you got sober, this town ain't the same," sings HGWT frontman Matt Burke. He then plows into the chorus, encouraging Katharine not to fall off the wagon.

Over the coming verses, Burke lets us live through what it feels like to be a recovering alcoholic -- Katharine's daily struggles, a mounting stack of bills and the constant temptation to turn to liquor or pills. It's a song that grows more sobering -- ironically enough -- with each passing line.

In the final verse, we learn the saddest part of Katharine's story, her rock bottom moment. Burke recounts how she "took a few shots, got drunk and forgot" about her only daughter's wedding, sleeping through the day. The demons aren't just in the bottle, but in a relationship she feels powerless to mend.

I've listened to the song a couple dozen times by now, and it still makes me want to cry every time. Burke is a special songwriter to have crafted this gem.

But we'd be in error to pretend this album is a downer. Like so many good songwriters, Burke is able to walk that fine line between comedy and tragedy so well. "Thirteen Miles to Empty" (which has a good video available on youtube) is a fun look at the perils of life on the road -- sort of like "Turn the Page" with a sense of humor.

Of course even in this song, the constant flirtation with disaster gives it an edge that makes your laughs a bit uncomfortable.

In the end, this is a high-quality band adept at seamlessly blending a number of genres and influences. Opener "Dream No More" has a darkly Appalachian feel. "To the Victor Goes the Spoils" follows, kicking it up about four notches with a heavy dose of punk attitude. "Time Machine" is a pop song disguised by folky guitar and southern fiddle.

And that's just the first three songs. Along the way, HGWT treads pretty much all corners of the music that we broadly call Americana. Country, rock, blues, bluegrass, folk -- it's all in there.

My spin: B+

Have Gun Will Travel's "Mergers & Acquisitions" doesn't take a song off. It's quality songwriting and performing throughout.

Burke and Co. leave us with "Streets of New England," a wonderfully understated piece about coming home from war. There are no value judgements here. The song is not too happy, not too sad, not triumphant, not mournful.

By not taking a stance, it best conveys the conflicting emotions of someone coming home from war. He's not the same man that he was, but he is home. Now let's try to get on with life.

And maybe that's what the best songwriters do -- tell us a story and then let us make up our own minds.