On their 2009 album, Bad Dog, central Vermont’s the Heckhounds introduced a lo-fi take on the blues that was as remarkable for what it offered as for what it lacked. The record featured a collection of homespun, mostly acoustic original blues tunes, cleverly written and ably performed. What it didn’t have was the over-the-top bombast in vogue among modern blues bands. No searing guitar solos, wailing harp runs or anguished blues howls, this was blues distilled to its bare essence. On their latest album, For the Price of a Haircut, the Heckhounds devolve even further, providing a glimpse of the genre’s roots and the band itself.
Haircut is essentially a time capsule. It is a collection of material written and recorded over the last several years, most of which predates the tunes found on Bad Dog. And like that album, it is notable for what it lacks — namely, bass guitar. There is nary a low-end note or rumbling bass throb to be heard. While on first listen, the sound spectrum feels thin, by addition through subtraction the Heckhounds shine a light on their true strength: succinct, clever songwriting.
Lead vocalists Hal Mayforth and Michael Murdock share songwriting duties throughout and play off each other well. In fact, two of the songs they co-wrote, album opener “New New Driveway Blues” and “Boston Blues,” are true album highlights.
Mayforth is the more direct tunesmith, favoring straightforward lyrics to metaphorical fancy. “Have You Heard the News?” is an apt example, as the singer ruminates on the reliable downer of reading the daily news. But as many a classic blues singer does, he offers a glimmer of hope in the chorus, singing, “We may be down, but we be down all day.”
Murdock seems more taken with classic blues themes, especially women who done gone — and, often, left him cryin’. Though he’s unafraid to mine blues archetypes, he often puts a personal spin on the material that raises it above contrived mimicry. For example, “Cell Phone Woman” is a delicious lament about a lover more focused on her phone than her partner. “I got a cell phone woman, you know she’s always on the phone / Every time I take her out, you know I feel like I’m all alone,” he sings.
Sparse and humble, the Heckhounds’ For the Price of a Haircut may not be as immediately impressive as some glitzier blues fare. But it’s nonetheless compelling and enjoyable.