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Hollis Brown: Ride on the Train

Reviewed By: Malcolm Carter
Label: Alive Naturalsound
Format: CD

The debut album from this NYC four-piece appears on the Alive Naturalsound record label, which seems fitting. There’s a real live feel to the ten original songs on ‘Ride on the Train’ and, the label’s Swamp Dogg and Irma Thomas reissues aside, this album is possibly the best release so far from that innovative label.

Not that Hollis Brown are breaking any new ground here. In fact any of the songs could have been recorded at any time during the last forty or so years, but they are just dripping with class and while the band wear their influences so very proudly on their sleeves the music still sounds fresh and, more importantly, exciting.

All the songs were written by Mike Montali (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) and lead guitarist Jon Bonilla, who delivers some impressive, searing guitar work throughout the album, ‘Doghouse Blues’, one of the songs that displays the band’s blues leanings (obvious from the title I know), is a prime example of just how good Bonilla is on his chosen instrument. Drummer Mike Graves and Dillon DeVito on bass provide the foundation for this extremely tight band to build on. ‘Ride on the Train’ is one of those albums where you immediately get the urge to try to catch the band live somewhere.

The rock/blues format favoured by Hollis Brown is expertly seasoned with country flavours with just a dusting of pop for good measure. Maybe the fact that the album was recorded in Nashville has influenced the sound of the album a little. No doubt the band members have a varied record collection between them. There are traces of Creedence Clearwater Revival in there, Beatlesy pop, the soulfulness of The Band and hints of the Black Crowes float in and out while Hollis Brown add enough originality to make the songs sound fresh.

The album opens with the title song, an infectious driving beat, pushing along the countrified rock that the band produces so well and which is the backbone of their sound. The following song, ‘Down on Your Luck’, follows the same pattern with outstanding guitar work from Bonilla, and it’s here where the Creedence influences are at their most prominent. But just when you think you’ve stumbled upon an album of classy southern rock with country influences track three throws you off the rail. ‘When The Weather’s Warm’ is the first taste on the album of the band’s more soulful side. Much like Creedence the band can flit from country-blues rockers to country-soul ballads with ease and without you noticing the joins. It sounds very natural, but obviously a lot of thought has gone into not only the recording of these songs but of the running order too. Mike Montali’s vocals shine brightly on this ballad. It’s the first indication that the band can cover a number of styles, and also that Montali is an exceptional vocalist.

From then on the album just gets better and better. The fourth track, ‘Nothing & The Famous No One’, (also the title of the bands only other release, an EP in 2012 which featured four of the songs on this album) highlights the band’s poppier side, a lazy summer’s afternoon of a song that it’s impossible to ignore before the aforementioned ‘Doghouse Blues’ brings you back to earth with a jolt.

‘Gypsy Black Cat’ is another song that recalls long summers listening to the radio driving in the car. These songs are so infectious they should come with some kind of health warning. You’ll lose yourself in them, that’s for sure.

‘If It Ain’t Me’ is one of Hollis Brown’s most affecting ballads. By this stage Montali is rapidly becoming your favourite male vocalist and, here’s that word yet again, the whole band sound so natural making this music like they were born to meet and do this. While Hollis Brown excel at country-soul ballads even when they take a more aggressive stance like on ‘Walk On Water’ they never lose sight of the tune and you can’t fail to feel better after hearing them rock out.

‘Nightfall’ closes the album and sees the band back in a mellow mood, although Montali’s vocals are some of his most emotional on this song.

‘Ride on the Train’ is a remarkable debut from a band that shows a lot of promise, and with the sun finally pushing through it looks like the soundtrack to the summer arrived just in time.

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