First Rodeo is the aptly titled debut from honeyhoney, one of the first bands signed by Kiefer Sutherland's Ironworks label (along with the likes of Lifehouse and Ron Sexsmith). The duo primarily consists of guitarist/pianist/songwriter Ben Jaffe and vocalist Suzanne Santo (who also pitches in on fiddle and banjo from time to time), but much like a Douglas Adams trilogy the album exceeds the constraints of the duo, featuring accompaniment by a host of musicians. Most notable in this regard is Jude Cole, who in his role as a modern-day George Martin contributes not only production but guitar, mandolin, keyboards, bass guitar, percussion, programming, background vocals and a partridge in a pear tree. The net result is a polished, possibly picture-perfect release that combines as many genres as it does instruments into an all-American stew of tasty tunes.
The band's sound is self-described as "Rocktastic and Freeky Deeky," which is perhaps more helpful than calling it alt-pop-folk-country-rock. An even better term might be Americana, which seems to be the catch-all category that artists like The Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland and Gillian Welch end up in, all of which have much in common with honeyhoney. Across eleven tracks, Jaffe's guitar and piano alternately provide just the right amounts of twang, swagger, swing, stomp or all-out rock, with Santo's powerful, throaty vocals (compared to a young Chrissie Hynde or Amy Winehouse) tying everything together.
Album opener "Black Crows" starts a capella, adding piano, then percussion, then further layers, gradually building into a poppy, bouncy, happy driving song, Santo crooning from high atop the entire sandwich. "Little Toy Gun" is a fun, campy romp through a '60s spaghetti western, right down to the artificial gunfire sounds peppered throughout; keep an eye on YouTube for the train-robbing video, directed by Kiefer Sutherland himself. "Not For Long" is another toe-tapping, twangy little ditty, steadily chugging along like a locomotive headed for Nashville before the fiddle kicks in halfway through like a train whistle; the return trip can be had on "Come On Home," simple Bluesy melody in the first half picking up steam in the second as the freight train leaves the station, something like Gillian Welch meets Coverdale-Page.
Yet although they sure can smoke ("Give Yourself To Me" practically flies off the tracks with its frantic garage-band pace), honeyhoney is equally at home on the quieter side of the tracks too. "Sugarcane" is a slow, sad, soulful song about love lost, steel guitar gently weeping as Santo croons about being the "salt in your sugarcane" before Jaffe joins her for the chorus. "Bouncing Ball" is smooth, smokey and sultry, a butterscotch ballad with a slow swing and a soaring chorus that invites you to lift your lighters (or your iPhones) and sing along. In fact, it's on a downbeat that the album ends, with the one-two punch of "Under The Willow Tree" -- a slow, spacey waltz with odd instrumentation -- and "Oh Mama," discordant instruments fading in and out like the band is tuning down after a long set, or perhaps riding off into the sunset after yet another stagecoach job.
Favorite Track: "Not For Long"
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