It’s a shame that Fat Maw Rooney, one of the best bands in the entire state of Wisconsin, play the city of Madison so infrequently. The band really needs to be experienced live to get a full taste of the breadth of talent they possess and the amount of heart they bring to every note of their performances. The best bands are those whose members listen very carefully to each other, to the point where they can anticipate each other’s impulses, making them a living, breathing entity with a life of its own. This phenomenon is a microcosm for how the world of humans should function, perhaps an underlying reason for what makes the jam band crowd so communal and for what gives the music its sense of hope.
Listening to Fat Maw Rooney’s new full-length album Horseshoes & Hand Grenades won’t reveal what happens in their live shows either – aside from great instrumentation, well-crafted songs and lyrics, and excellent vocal skills (all five members sing). What doesn’t happen are the extended, jaw-dropping instrumentals that are part and parcel of their performances. I have not seen a band in this state that injects more spirited emotion into their playing, expertly building free-form jams into wild yet controlled frenzy.
Though Horseshoes and Hand Grenades reins in the jamming, it does highlight what sensational writers these guys are and how cohesively they function as a unit. The band crosses many stylistic boundaries, fusing genres into their own singular identity. “All the Good Friends” uses trombone and harmonica to create a Tom Waits-ish vibe and a New Orleans feel. Later in the disc a three-piece trombone section accentuates the seriously funked-up “We Could Be,” a groove of which Prince himself would approve. “Troubled Minds” is a blues ballad with a vocal line passionately delivered by RJ Peterson and a really innovative chord sequence in the middle section. It also contains one of the lyrical highlights: “Those who claim to know the truth / Always seem to drive the final nail.”
I was a bit surprised at the pointedness of some of the lyrics throughout the album. On “I Can Adjust” percussionist Ryan Necci speaks over a ferocious rock riff: “I sure am glad your momma didn’t raise me / ‘Cause I’d ended up somewhere just like you / Just below the line of acceptability and respectability / And just above worthless / I can adjust / Make things work / And you can adjust / Just like me.” Goddamn, this song just kicks ass. “River Love Blues” reads like a tale of murder, a melodic piece with a great guitar solo (the album is replete with great guitar solos, even without the extended jams) and one of the album’s highlights. Necci’s drawl provides a Sling Blade-like creepiness. “All the Good Friends” addresses a broken-down relationship: “I should have known that all the good friends are taken / I should have let this one slide right through my tears / I should have known this wasn’t one of those worth makin’ / So won’t you please give me back all those years?”
“Friends and Foes” is a complex track incorporating jazz voicings. The guitar lick is killer and the dual lead-guitar interplay just before the bridge is an exhilerating moment. One of the band’s performance highlights is the traditional “Oh, Death,” popularized by Ralph Stanley in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Battlemound” gets a similar treatment here, via a four-part a capella arrangement. “Drank You Out of My Mind” underscores the remarkable tightness among the players. The strong ingredient there is the bass playing of Kevin Rowe which is simply astounding throughout the album.
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades is not Fat Maw Rooney’s masterpiece. That album is still to come, perhaps after the members finish their respective degrees. Until then this disc will satisfy their base of rabid fans – in between the live shows.