The Damn Quails - Down the Hatch
by Kelcy Salisbury
A great man (I’ve heard the quote variously attributed to Kris Kristofferson & Guy Clark) once said that there are two ways to write great lyrics. One is to write about “uncommon things in common words”. The other is to write about “common things in uncommon words”. As a music fan I’ve always leaned strongly on the lyrical quality of the music when choosing between what I consider good or bad. Of course good music requires strong playing and solid arrangements but that’s just the cover charge. To actually get in the club and make an impression, it had better have some serious lyrical weight.
I’m happy to report that the Damn Quails debut album, Down The Hatch, delivers on all counts. Most great songwriters excel at either common themes in uncommon words, or vice versa, to reference the previous quote one last time. The lyrical strength of the one-two punch that is Damn Quails songwriting is that they can pull off either type of writing with equal aplomb.
But there is much more here than just great lyrics and well crafted songs (I may be labeled as a heretic, but I’m looking at you Bob Dylan and you too, Neil Young when I say this). The performances, both vocally and musically more than hold up their end of the bargain and actually enhance the lyrics of each song.
Now, at this point in time the Quails are one of the most buzzed about bands in this region of the country and possibly in all of independent/Americana/Red Dirt music, so I’ll spare you the biographical information, but let me just say that I haven’t heard a duo that works this well together since at least Foster & Loyd, again risking being burned at the stake for heresy I actually prefer the Damn Quails to any musical duo I can recall hearing since the height of the Waylon & Willie collaborations and truthfully the Damn Quails are more of an actual duo than those efforts ever were. The third person whose contributions cannot be overstated is producer and Oklahoma music kingpin Mike McClure. The production is spot-on throughout the album. After about two dozen spins I can’t hear a single spot where I felt like the production was flawed or lacking, yet the album never loses it’s organic feel. It’s truly a remarkable achievement.
My personal favorite feature of the Damn Quails music is the interplay in vocal styles as they trade off lead vocals from song to song. Gabriel has a voice that vaguely reminds me of a celtic singer I heard once at a bar in Canada. Random I know, but I could definitely imagine him singing some Chieftains cover songs on a lark. Byron has what feels like a more classic country/folk voice to me. Neither voice is incredible on it’s own, though both are certainly very good. It’s the interplay of the two, and the changing styles from one song to the next that really give the album such a uniquely wonderful vocal quality.
Musically, there is plenty to love. The guitar work on opening track, Better Place To Stop, and Parachute both stand out to me but every song has great instrumentals, even a touch of organ in places. There is not a weak link musically on the entire album.
Lyrically every song is exceptional, I suspect everyone who listens closely will have a different favorite and will possibly change their minds about what that favorite is after each listen. Each song evokes the emotions of the story being told as the lyrics are perfectly blended with the instrumental arrangements to paint a picture that words alone simply cannot do. My personal favorites on the album are Fools Gold, Parachute and California Open Invitation but I don’t skip a single song any time I listen and I doubt I ever will.
If you can buy only one song on this album, save your money until you can buy the whole thing. A true piece of art deserves to be seen/heard the way it was intended to be, as a whole and this is a truly great piece of art. I simply have nothing negative to say about it.
Finally, this is deservedly the most buzzed about band out of the musical hotbed that is central Oklahoma in quite a while and (with all due respect to Jason Boland & The Stragglers whose Rancho Alto is incredible and all the other acts who put out great work this year) I am willing to state that this is the best record of the year, regardless of genre. It’s simply that good.