Edie Brickell & New Bohemians | Hunter and the Dog Star | (Thirty Tigers)
Four out of Five Stars
When it comes strictly to consistency, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians aren’t exactly what one would call a combo to be counted on. After all, the band has only managed to tally six studio albums in the 35 years since they first formed in Dallas, Texas in the mid ‘80s. Their first three albums, the cassette-only It’s Like This, their best-selling Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and its follow-up, Ghost of a Dog, brought their trajectory through to 1990, but after that, subsequent efforts were severely delayed until Stranger Things appeared in 2006. After that, it took another twelve years until the release of the critically acclaimed Rocket some twelve years later.
Happily then, the band’s new album, Hunter and the Dog Star, arrives a mere three years after its immediate predecessor. Despite the fact that it emerges in an era of struggle and strife, it’s a remarkably uplifting effort. For starters, it shares a decidedly modern sound, one rooted in a freewheeling pop approach. From the effusive opener, “Sleeve,” and the upbeat entry that follows, the half-spoken “Don’t Get in the Bed Dirty,” through to the giddy “I Don’t Know,” the beat-steady “Stubborn Love,” the determined drive of “Horse’s Mouth” and the album’s riveting conclusion, “My Power,” the songs soar on the strength of their effusive arrangements and sparkling, shimmering melodies.
“I think it’s really important to give people a break,” Brickell nods when asked about that incandescent approach. “I’ve always turned to music that feels good. I won’t buy those records and I’ll switch the station if I sense that somebody’s trying to preach to me, or saying that everything’s wrong or that they’re depressed. We all feel these things, it’s true, but I want to hear music that makes me feel better. So that’s our intention when it comes to capturing the effervescent energy in our music.”
Brickell insists there’s no absolute intended agenda. “A lot of them were straight improvisation,” she says of the songs on the new LP. “We didn’t go in to the studio knowing what we were going to record. Our mission was to capture the band’s energy, because while we’ve had success with the band’s records in the past, we never felt that they truly captured that energy the band possesses.”
Brickell attributes that discrepancy to the approach that was taken on the earlier albums. “They were crafted,” she suggests. “The engineers would record the drums first, and then when I went in, I’d give my most heartfelt performance, not knowing they were just using them as a guide for the drums. I discovered that after the fact. ‘I gave my best performance several takes ago, and now you’ve built up the tracks and so now you call me in to sing over the production intact and give you my best shot.’ The difference is that I’m inspired by the energy of a live performance, and the communication with the band as it’s happening. So this time we went in with the intention of capturing the sound of a live band playing together, vocals included, in order for you to get the real deal.”
Brickell emphasizes that while the band’s output may have been sparse over the decades, they’ve continued to keep their live presence intact. So too, Brickell herself has never lacked for ongoing activity. In addition to her work with the New Bohemians, she’s released three solo albums, two albums with her supergroup of sorts, the Gaddabouts, three recordings with Steve Martin—the musical they cowrote together, Bright Star, had a Broadway run in 2016 — and shared stages and studio time with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
For this particular record, Brickell asked producer/engineer Kyle Crusham, the man behind the boards for her last solo album, the eponymous Edie Brickell, to oversee the proceedings. She notes that it was his ability to make the musicians feel at ease and generate their best performances that contributed to the album’s emphatic approach.
“He had the potential to capture the band’s personality,” she says in retrospect. “However I think we’ve only just begun.”
Sadly, the progress was interrupted in 2007 when tragedy struck due to a freak accident. Carter Albrecht, the band’s singer, guitarist and keyboard player, was killed by a stray bullet fired by a neighbor following an altercation next door. “It was so upsetting to me, I just couldn’t imagine standing on a stage and looking over and not seeing Carter,” Brickell recalls. “It was traumatic. I said ‘never mind.’ I didn’t feel like I could force the issue. I felt like we needed Carter to bring us a level of professionalism that we had not yet reached. I thought he was better positioned than all of us to do that, and to have him gone felt like the north star had fallen from the sky.”
Nevertheless, Brickell insists that the absence between recordings didn’t mean that when they regrouped, they’d be starting from scratch. “No, it wasn’t like that at all,” she maintains. “These guys are kind of like they’re my brothers, and every time I play with them, it gets more and more comfortable.”
As a result, Brickell credits Crusham with being able to bring the band back together and reboot the energy and impetus that was sorely needed in the wake of Albrecht’s passing. “After the band had played a number of shows and benefits in the interim, we arranged the meeting with Kyle,” she explains. The record was actually finished a year ago, but it was delayed due to covid. The momentum had been stalled, but it’s certainly not stopped.”