Artist: Have Gun, Will Travel
Album: Strange Chemistry
Release date: July 12, 2019
The deal. Workaholics, a guilty television pleasure of mine, once had a funny throwaway scene, the setup of which probably never mattered, featuring the three leads in a bald eagle-painted convertible, top down, Seven Mary Three blasting from the speakers, all drumming along to the tugboat of a song. “We are so American,” Adam DeVine tells his friends. “This is the most American thing we can do right now.” While American music is much more complicated than a simple chant over a simpler groove, there are some albums that simply resonate at a more American frequency. Have Gun, Will Travel’s Strange Chemistry is one of those albums.
The Flordia band has a Tom Petty sound, with lots of mid-tempo rock songs that are as relaxing as a long drive on an empty stretch of highway. It’s not lowest common denominator American music so much as it’s familiar short-hand. The Petty connection is strongest on “Any Place But Here,” a slightly slowed version of “American Girl,” with a bigger power-pop chorus. However, the song features the trademark Petty backing “whoas,” as cathartic as yelling from a speeding car with the windows rolled down, the wind stealing your shouts.
While the music bears a resemblance to Petty’s, and also occasionally to fellow American icon Bob Seger, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Matt Burke has a stronger, more intense voice than either singer. It conveys an urgency that’s not always present in the underlying music. One of the album’s strongest tunes is “American History,” which allows Burke to show off a real rock and roll swagger, without coming off as obnoxious. The track also features horns, a la the Vandoliers, which hopefully is becoming a music industry standard.
Straight talk. Not to belabor the Petty comparisons, but one of the thing he and the Heartbreakers did best was create smart, happy music. One of the vestiges of grunge is the conflation of darkness with depth. While depressing songs can, of course, be deep, they can also be just as insipid as a Ke$ha track. Burke has been upfront about his struggles with anxiety, so I actually appreciate that this album is an antidote and not a re-creation.
The confession. The premise of this site is my being hopelessly behind listening to and writing about music, and there’s always low-grade guilt attached. But I’ve been especially behind lately. I heard this and knew I wanted to review it, but getting to that point took even longer than I would have liked.
Closing arguments. It’s a wild time in the United States, and whatever your politics are, I’m sure if you live here, you’re feeling the tension. Which is weird, because Americans have a unique appreciation for relaxation. You see it in the mini-golf courses across this great nation, but also in the massage chairs that litter our indoor public spaces. Have Gun, Will Travel are tapped into that relaxation energy, which started in 1776 and continues to pulse — red, white, and blue— through our veins. At least until it’s time to go back to our app-controlled contract gigs.
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.