LISTEN: The Federal Hillbillies, 'Whiskey to Wine'
RATING: *** out of 4
The best song on "Whiskey to Wine," the EP from relative Americana newcomers The Federal Hillbillies, is also the saddest. The midtempo "Invisible Man" finds frontman Justin Ahmanson wrestling with regret.
It begins with tears falling in the narrator's hands, but Ahmanson beautifully captures the end of a relationship when he sings, "My heart has fallen as far as she ran / Wish I was an invisible man." No matter the genre, that is economical wording that packs a punch. "Whiskey to Wine" is full of similar eye-opening moments that declare Ahmanson's abilities as a songwriter, and in particular, lyricist.
Throughout the EP, the band -- which also includes Justin's older brother, Josh Ahmanson (pedal/lap steel guitar), Chris King (drums) and Dan Walker (bass) -- plays Americana that's mostly folk and country but with a touch of the blues. It's a serviceable backdrop that is averse to risk taking but services the real star of the project, Ahmanson's lyrics. The music never gets in the way of the narrative, and "Whiskey to Wine" is better for it.
With its aching slide guitar and harmonica, "Punch Drunk Love" transports listeners to a slurred-but-promising exchange between two strangers at a bar. Naturally, on an EP as thematically melancholy as this, the ballad begins with promise ("I don't recall just what she said / But I thought she could turn a phrase" is another excellent line that accurately captures hours of drunken flirting in 15 words) but ends in sadness. Their moment passed, and the man is left only with "this cold, dark, lonely floor."
The closing title track is familiar territory: The narrator has lost his love, and in the absence has replaced her with a tried-and-true bottle of whiskey. Ahmanson's word choices connect broken hearts and alcohol consumption, natural companions, in an obvious way, but the effect is no less felt: "But the only warmth I have now is whiskey / It feels cold to split a bottle alone," he sings. The song ends with the vague optimism -- or is it wishful thinking? -- that the two will reunite one day. In the hands of The Federal Hillbillies, you can't shake the sense that the day will never come. -- Wesley Case