An acoustic guitar lays down a menacing mood at the onset of “Parliament Smoke,” one of the eleven songs comprising Shane Smith & the Saints’ Hail Mary, currently out now via Geronimo West Records everywhere that independent music is sold and streamed. Soon we’ll encounter a galloping percussive groove and a darkly evocative lead vocal from Smith himself, who explores the depth of his singing abilities in this record like he never has before. Heavenly harmonies are sprinkled over sophisticated string arrangements that borrow as much from old Appalachia as they do the Bakersfield sound in Hail Mary, but intriguing instrumentation makes up only one half of this tunefully melodic treasure chest.
There are a lot of blues elements in this LP, notably in the title track and “Heaven Knows,” but they’re not the only outside textures to behold within the sonic profile of Hail Mary. We’ve got shades of vintage singer/songwriter-style folk in “The End” and “We Were Something,” the dexterity of a bluegrass jam in “Whirlwind,” sultry southern rock in “Parliament Smoke” and “Oklahoma City,” and a dash of alternative Americana in “Little Bird.” This is a supremely diverse album, a definite product of the red dirt sound, and yet none of the songs here feel like they were born of a watered-down, halfhearted indie hybridity.
“Little Bird,” “The Hardest Part,” “Heaven Knows” and “Last Train to Heaven” are, from where I sit, instrumentally flawless, but in other tracks like “The End” and “We’ll Never Know,” Smith’s surreal singing makes the music far more engaging that its simplistic structure would afford the typical vocalist. He puts a special spin on every stitch of audio in Hail Mary; even among the familiar beat-volley that serves as a foundation for the rhythm in the title track, his iconic crooning makes every element in the Saints’ play sound not just fresh, but larger than life.
“We’ll Never Know” is one of the most moving tracks I’ve heard in this band’s body of work, and I think that it speaks volumes about where Shane Smith & the Saints are at right now creatively. They’re expanding on the concepts laid out in their last record, 2015’s captivating Geronimo, and embracing experimentalism with a cautionary conservatism that stands in strong contrast with what their peers in the Nashville establishment have been doing as of late. I’m very interested in hearing where they go from here, but that’s beside the point – regardless of everything else, this is a watershed moment for this band.
I’ve never been the world’s biggest country music fan, but even if you were to categorize Hail Mary under the same genre that you would Roses and Cigarettes or W.C. Beck, it would still be too good for even the most ardent of anti-country critics to resist. Shane Smith & the Saints are stirring up a lot of buzz in the American underground this year, and based on the strong response that they’ve received with this latest album, it’s hard for me to picture their momentum slowing down anytime soon – if anything, it’s going to get all the more intense over the course of this summer.