[Rating: 3.5 stars]
At surface level, L.A. duo Honeyhoney seem fairly ordinary, even predictable. Pretty girl (Suzanne Santo) plus vaguely mysterious dude (Ben Jaffe) make charming, fiddle-soaked Americana filled with sugary melodies and backwoods charm, perfectly crafted for a lazy Sunday afternoon doodling the crossword at your local Starbucks. And none of that is false – Billy Jack, their second full-length album, is plenty cute (playing up the pair’s flirtatious chemistry through close-knit harmonies), and, if anything, more straightforward than their genre-hopping debut, which traversed through spaghetti-western and drizzled retro-blues.
But with Billy Jack, Santo and Jaffe have arrived at a more focused, confident style – one propelled by its unusual, even startling, contrasts. Take, for example, their folky opener “Angel Of Death.” The sound is low-key and yawny, with Santo seemingly aching for a lost lover over a patiently strummed acoustic: “Floating on the wind until I find you,” she sings, “I bury myself deep inside your heart / You won’t feel a change; we’ll just become the same thing / But never spend a single day apart.” Sounds sweet enough. But as the song plods along, injected with Santo’s spot-on fiddle solo, the narrator’s true purpose, and identity, gets hazier – and more menacing: “Yes, I guess there have been many others / Yes, I’ve treated them the same as you / And quick I’d let them die, and I’d lick the salty tears they cry / Many went from many to a few.” I suppose knowing the song’s title in advance ruins the lyrical surprise, but the duo’s clever and patient wordplay is in full-force here, as they nimbly tight-rope walk the subtle, mirrored perspective between a heart-breakin’ hussy and the Grim Reaper himself.
And while “Angel Of Death”’s dichotomy blends perky folk and midnight-black words, Billy Jack’s stirring closer “Thin Line” takes the exact opposite approach. “I want whiskey when I’m sick and a man when I’m well,” Santo admits, “But it’s nice to have them both sometimes when I feel like raising hell.” But there’s a different brand of hell raised on this insular epic, colored by Jaffe’s dark, blooming six-strings, which erupt into noisy oblivion toward track’s end.
As Santo observes early on, “things are rarely ever what they seem.” While Billy Jack’s redneck title seems to suggest that Honeyhoney have smoothed over all of their weirder tendencies, that’s fairly inaccurate, even if the pair’s eccentricities are more subtle and less self-conscious this time around. Instrumentally, Santo and Jaffe are mostly neck-deep in twang (Santo’s wonderful banjo counter-melodies are particularly great), and their classic country influences shine blindingly through (Their unified harmonies on the bouncy “I Don’t Mind” echo The Everly Brothers). But Billy Jack never sounds dated or placid: The gorgeous six-strings and pedal-steel layers that build and climb in the instrumental climax of “Turn That Finger Around” are downright psychedelic. Meanwhile, their slower, jazzier coffee-shop reveries like “LA River” and “All On You” are fairly lightweight by this album’s previously excellent precedent, even if they are quite lovely as they drip along.
But the overall quality on Billy Jack is dictated by lyrical inventiveness. When they retreat into vague “Let’s party!” clunkiness, the wheels nearly fall off completely – “Let’s Get Wrecked” throbs like vintage Johnny Cash, even if its full-throttle odes to “getting laid” and “burnin’ that sweet cloud” feel stupid and tossed-off for a band with this much lyrical skill. The devil’s in the details, and Honeyhoney make a huge impact when they get into specifics. “I sold all your clothes to get rid of your smell,” Santo reflects, harmonizing effortlessly with Jaffe over a quietly strummed acoustic, on “Don’t Know How.” On the sticky-sweet “Old School Friends,” Jaffe briefly takes the lead with an ode equal parts hilarious and sad: “I can’t forget getting’ drunk in the woods / With some liquor stolen from the market shelf / I drank a whole plastic cherry coke bottle full of wine / And I thought I had killed myself.” It’s hilarious, it’s sad. And it’s uncompromisingly beautiful.