CD Review of Modbilly by The Boxmasters
The Boxmasters: Modbilly
Recommended if you like
Buck Owens, Merle Haggard,
Johnny Cash
Vanguard Records
The Boxmasters: Modbilly

Reviewed by Jim Washington


ay this for The Boxmasters - they’re not as bad as many bands fronted by actors. Yes, that’s Billy Bob Thornton, credited here as W.R. "Bud" Thornton, singing and drumming his honky-tonk heart out on Modbilly, the followup to last year’s self-titled debut.

This effort is not the embarrassment of, say, Bruce Willis and The Return of Bruno, nor is it a complete sideshow along the lines of Dogstar, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts or the Bacon Brothers. But neither does it live up to a title as cool as Modbilly, which brings to mind some unholy mix of early Who and Elvis.

It helps that the band -- Thornton, bassist and guitarist J.D. Andrew and steel guitarist Michael Wayne Butler -- tackles a genre in which it’s easy to at least appear cool. The Boxmasters solidly ape the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and others, with a little bit of British Invasion rock thrown in, while wearing nifty throwback suits. It would be a stretch to say that Thornton can sing, but he has at least picked a style of music that sort of fits his shortcomings.

Modbilly, like the band’s first album, consists of two discs -- one of originals and one of covers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the covers disc holds up better. It includes an interesting array of tunes, some familiar but none groaningly obvious. Highlights include Roger Miller‘s "Half A Mind," "Merrimack County" by Tom Rush, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s "Santa Rosa" and John Hartford‘s "Gentle on My Mind," plus some unexpected treats, including a lounge-y take on the Rolling Stone’s "As Tears Go By" and a version of "Elenore" by the Turtles. It’s kind of a kick to hear the famously freaky Thornton tell a girl, "I really think you’re groovy/ Let’s go out to a movie."

As for the originals, it must be said that the Boxmasters can write some clever lyrics. Songs like "Heartbreakin’ Wreck," "You Crossed the Line" and "That’s Why Tammy Has My Car" are rollicking good times (it’s tough not to like a guy who’ll sing "I’m a moron, I’m a dumbass, I’m a irresponsible washout and a debit to my gender.") "Reasons for Livin,’" with its lyrics about drinking, smoking, women and the problems they cause, (which include "a sore on my lip now and then") comes off as authentically and amusingly self-destructive.

Overall, the schtick wears thin pretty quick, but of all the things Thornton has done in the public eye, this is at least one he doesn’t have to live down.

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