The New York City-based rock group Hollis Brown released their second full-length, Ride on the Train, a couple of weeks back and I was initially hesitant about writing a review. It’s not that the record isn’t excellent because it most certainly is. The dilemma I faced was due to the fact that Michael Graves, the band’s drummer, just happens to be my second cousin. But in the ensuing days after I first listened to the album, Ride on the Train sunk its hooks into me and I just had to let people know about it. It might be one of the best rock records you’re gonna hear all year. I did make myself one promise, however: don’t talk about how great the drumming is.
Rounding out the group’s lineup is singer/guitarist Mike Montali, guitarist Jon Bonilla, and bassist Dillon Devito. Michael Hesslein contributed organ and piano on some of the songs and sometimes performs live with the group.
On songs like “Down on Your Luck” and “Gypsy Black Cat,” Devito’s ambling bass work provides a solid backbone from which to support the blistering lead guitar attack from Jon Bonilla, which is the musical equivalent of pissing on the third rail: dirty, disgusting, and heart-stoppingly electrifying. It’s almost hard to believe he’s versatile enough to pull off the seething solo of “Doghouse Blues” alongside the gentle beauty of “If It Ain’t Me”’s classical acoustic guitar melody. To be able to convey the melancholic vulnerability of the latter song and then unleash the visceral burst of restless fury that is “Walk on Water” back to back is a feat that most guitarists simply cannot pull off. By the way, if you were wondering how great they are live, just imagine the energy of “Walk on Water” sustained over an entire set. (And if you’re in the D.C. or New York areas this weekend, you can see for yourself at The Bayou in Washington on Friday 3/29 or The Mercury Lounge in Manhattan on Saturday 3/30.)
The production by Adam Landry, who has also produced records by Deer Tick and Diamond Rugs, suits Montali’s soulful vocals by toning them back a bit during the quieter arrangements and kicking them up a notch on the louder songs, allowing the vocal hooks to really grab you and never let go. The title track kicks off the album with a bluesy brand of Americana heavily indebted to the work of Neil Young and The Band. I will be listening to “Ride on the Train” on every road trip I ever take for the rest of my life. “Faith and Love” comfortably moseys along in the vein of early Allman Brothers songs. It’s not hard to imagine this record having been recorded in the 1970s and only just now seeing the light of day. In an ironic twist, the digital version contains the song that sounds the oldest: “Hey Baby,” a masterpiece of Mississippi blues, complete with acoustic slide guitar.
It should come as no surprise that Hollis Brown are able to pull off these arrangements and make them seem so effortless. After cutting their teeth on the road the past few years, they were able to settle down in Nashville and produce a magnificent record that evokes the freedom and loneliness of wandering through this sprawling country of ours.
And seriously, guys, how fucking great is the drumming?!