Hills and Valleys (New West)
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 17, 2009
The FlatlandersHills and Valleys (New West)
Technically speaking, the Flatlanders' millennial reboot, 2002's bonhomous Now Again, constitutes Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock's sophomore slump. After all, the three musketeers' original sessions from 1971 and 1972, bronzed for posterity decades later by Rounder Records' More a Legend Than a Band, produced West Texas mysticism more a secret handshake than a music legend, yet still a Lone Star singer-songwriter standard. In primary vocalist Gilmore's tremulous croon – sharing the spotlight with the musical saw and buttressed by the compositional wit and wisdom of Hancock and Ely's firestarter command – blew the state's "South Wind of Summer," put into song for Now Again. Its 2004 follow-up, Wheels of Fortune, proved too much too soon, the album's spokes falling off after two years of touring that followed 30 years of occasional Flatlanders reunions. Hills and Valleys is the disc the whole shootin' match has been building toward. The culmination of the three amigos' lifelong collaboration – vocally, musically, ideologically, sequentially – Hills and Valleys, not unlike Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream in relation to the three E Street Band LPs since 2002, crowns the group's decade. Manned by fellow Lubbock émigré and steel-string sage Lloyd Maines, as opposed to Ely, who produced the last two albums, Hills and Valleys rides a line the Southern Pacific Railroad would envy. Writing together where previously each songsmith mostly submitted his own material, Gilmore/Ely/Hancock's first six salvos here are their best run yet, opener "Homeland Refugee" a modern Woody Guthrie standard, rollicking follower "Borderless Love" basically another, and "After the Storm" in the third spot reiterating why Gilmore was the act's original singer. No. 6 slot, "Just About Time," perfects the Flatlanders' campfire bump and grind. From there, Mr. This Guitar Kills Fascists (Guthrie) lends the threesome his hillbilly jaunt, "Sowing on the Mountain," while Gilmore's son Colin lands the album's shooting star, "The Way We Are." Master craftsmen Rob Gjersoe (guitar), Glenn Fukunaga (bass), Rafael Gayol (drums), and Joel Guzman (accordion), not to mention original Flatlander Steve Wesson, whose saw on "Cry for Freedom" lends the Gilmore/Ely/Hancock lament an almost West African quality, hum at cricket frequencies. Closer "There's Never Been" catalogs nature's larger truths. Count the Flatlanders on that roll call.