Trad-punk six piece The Killigans hail from Nebraska, the American central Great Plains State framed by Bruce Springsteen in his 1982 release of the same name. Perhaps, for many outsiders, Springsteen conclusively established the imagery of the place through his bare lyrics and bleakly romantic cover art, his own vision of a vast and lonely rural America echoed in Tom Waits songs such as ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ and ‘Train Song’. Whatever the case, The Killigans’ debut album Brown Bottle Hymnal shows them steeped in a raw fresh aura of hinterland. They are, perhaps, the only recorded example of an elusive species; the spiritually rural punk band.
And punk they are. Although their lyrics would no doubt earn a nod from Steve Earle and Jeff Tweedy, this is not ‘country’ – whatever that is – nor is it the critically-cherished style known as ‘Americana’. The Killigans owe something to Flogging Molly’s electric folk crunch and love of full-throated delivery but the accent is their own. Opening with the jaunty dockyard accordion of ‘Lullaby For The Working Man’, dual vocalists Brad Hoffman and Chris Nebesniak launch into a raucous lament for shafted underdogs that sounds like it could have surfaced in one of Woody Guthrie’s long-lost songbooks. The pace is maintained with The Dubliners’ trad favourite ‘The Holy Ground’, a prayer sung by sailors amongst themselves so that they may return again to the women and taverns that complement their other real addiction; the sea itself. People will still be singing this song in a hundred years and The Killigans understand this quality and do it justice.
‘Ballad For The Working Man’ is another vignette of proletariat frustration and restriction – “ The factory life is all I have, an all inclusive club … I know that I’m just an ordinary man, I’m none too smart” – but still holds onto the hope of defiance, spat out alongside the resentment: “We will rise up, stand up and fight”. The mix has electric and tautly strummed acoustic guitar complementing each other neatly and brings to mind the better Flogging Molly stuff.
There’s a hearty toast to The Dropkick Murphys on ‘Story Of Tom Mathine’ with it’s bar room call-and-answer verses and swaying singalong chorus, snare roll-driven pace and bawdy storyline in which the title character – “ a bully and a prick through and through “ – gets his just desserts at the hands of a no-nonsense, hard-drinking preacher.
The band takes a detour with the introspective ‘Season Of My Weakness’, a catchy mid-tempo folk rock number. Then it’s sleeves rolled up and straight back into the lowly bars with ‘Radney’s Ghost’, a theatrical pirate yarn of treachery and the cat, inspired by Melville’s Moby Dick: “ Being flogged on the deck was more than he could bear … Rad was dropped with a punch, spouted blood just like a whale “. All signs point to this one being a jawbreaker when played live.
The faded but beloved Dubliners and Clancy Brothers records come out again with ‘The Old Orange Flute’, the surreal tale of the fickle Orangeman Bob Williamson who runs off with a Catholic girl, taking his prized – but seemingly possessed – flute with him; try as he might, he can’t get the instrument to play anything but ‘The Protestant Boys’ and so a council of priests burn it at the stake. However, the flute has the last say: “ As the flames soared around, sure it made a quare noise, ‘twas the old flute still playing ‘The Protestant Boys!’ ”.
‘Lessons From The Empty Glass’ is a banjo-led instrumental that sounds like the soundtrack to the most gloriously fun and violent western TV series never made. Then the band really hit the highway with ‘The Old Road Down’, a big, brooding mid-American number that calls to mind Copperhead Road-era Steve Earle; “ Got everything I own inside this Chevrolet, going nowhere and that needle’s dropping fast, that woman broke my heart in St. Louis, shot ‘em both and drove into the west “.
The guitars stay cranked for ‘Apathetic Notions’, a curse against the exploitative status quo and the system that leads to “most of us exploited by the rich” not knowing “we’ve put the yoke on our own necks”. But as with their other political songs, there is a flame of hope through making such acknowledgments.
The album ends with the desolate and moving ‘ Desperate Cry ‘. This is the sort of song that John Mellencamp may have written if he had joined a punk band – “ Famer stands watching as his crops wilt away … cry out to the Lord God, ‘Help me Jesus I pray! “ – it immediately calls to mind the classic Rain On The Scarecrow. The spare arrangement, using only trumpet and acoustic guitar to accompany Hoffman’s bereft voice, flips the whole album upside down on its head.
Brown Bottle Hymnal is a significantly original punk rock release. Hoffman’s capacity to lead and hold a tune rivals the best of them and the lyrics are varied and engaging. It smells as fresh as approaching rain and a cracked can of cold beer. The Killigans have drawn water from the well and are irrigating their own fields.