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New Album Review: 100 Miles of Wreckage by the Black Lillies

February 1, 2011

The Black Lillies: Paint the Heart Black

By: Patrick Gipson

Cruz Contreras has proven for years to be one of the dedicated champions of the Knoxville music scene. Formerly of Robinella and the CCstringband, the vocalist, guitarist and mandolin player has created a southern storm of Americana rebirth with his latest ensemble, The Black Lillies. In 2008, Contreras joined forces with fellow Knoxville musicians Tom Pryor (electric guitar/pedal steel) and Jamie Cook (percussion). The additions of vocalist Trisha Gene Brady and bassist Robert Richards rounded out a sweet five-piece capable of emitting some of the freshest sounds of rocky Appalachia.

This album is an epic a good way. Hell, even the cover screams remorse.

The group’s 2009 debut album, “Whiskey Angel,” produced by Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor, attracted national attention and brought the band to the forefront of the proud Knoxville soundscape. A long year of touring, including stops at Bonnaroo and the Ryman Auditorium, has led up to the release of their sophomore effort, “100 Miles of Wreckage.” An eerie southern journey, this album explores young heartbreak and hatred, love and lust, action and regret.

The opening track, “Two Hearts Down,” paints the scene beautifully, as a haunting guitar/banjo combo strum your ears into a dark, backwoods odyssey of southern suffering and redemption. Contreras premier lines, If I had a bottle/I’d surely drink it on down/No more pain, goodbye shame/then I’d head into town, appropriately invite you to a 51 minute journey through heartbreak, anger and painful regret. The first track tells the tale of a lonely lover, who with his father’s rifle, drunkenly takes the life of his ex-lover and a suiting stranger. A jail cell ending leads into the slow, sorrowful tune “The Arrow.” Whether the song is a continuation of the story a mystery you can solve, yet Contrera’s lyrics share a deeply saddening story of young lives ended. There lie the bodies/gone are the souls/flown from the wreckage/wandering alone, lead Contrera’s and backup singer Trisha Gene Brady into a memorable chorus…Young lovers/young lovers/hold on/to one another. Tom Pryor’s masterful pedal steel solo echoes this funeral-like anthem of retribution and remorse. It’s a taste of those blood-deep, painful feelings that are scarring, but bittersweet in the end.

A soft plucking guitar opens up “Same Mistakes,” a ballad of repentance, for all those who have hurt somebody by simply not being there. A beautiful barroom piano gives the song some life, despite the apologetic nature of its verses. Once again, Pryor proves to be the arm to Contrera’s heart, providing a strong, uplifting acoustic guitar solo at the body of this beautiful work. Finally, the album takes a turn away from its somber ways with “Three in the Mornin.’” It is an up-tempo tribute to churning through late nights, whether that youthful, bottomless energy is pushing you through another drink at the local bar, or closing off the last leg of a long trip down the highway. Blazing fiddles and quick pickin’ country guitars provide the perfect soundtrack for blazing your trail on home, no matter whom or what you’re running from. “Nobody’s Business” is perhaps the best example of Contreras and Brady’s vocal duet abilities, while Pryor lays down a jazzy, almost surf inspired guitar in the background. Fundamentally, it could be the best track on the album.

The tempo slows down with “Shepherd’s Song,” another turn towards darkness in a tearful farewell from a shepherd facing a hanging. The violin gets another nod and it pays off in an enlightening solo of beautifully sliding strings. In “Peach Pickin,’” a stray harmonica appears in a catchy medley of guitars and blues drums. Contrera’s offers up one of the most memorable choruses about peaches since Steve Miller…Well I’m heading down the line and I don’t know where/I’ll be happy long as I get there/I got that sweet, sweet woman/always on my mind/well she’s as sweet as a peach and I think it’s peach pickin’ time. Contrera’s shows once again that he’s as capable of writing a warm-hearted country medley as a spiraling tribute to depression. As good as this song is, it’s the odd apple of the bunch; a peach in a field of dead crops. “Soul of a Man” turns back to the darkness so quickly it will make you dizzy. Strangely similar to the Death Cab for Cutie hit “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” this song explores the possible destinations of departing souls and the voids that embrace them. Nonetheless, the tune is smartly crafted and a peaceful tune that will happily accompany you in drunken, late night discussions of the afterlife and spirituality.

The longest track, “Tall Trees,” is a slow song that with great patience and maturity, builds into a fuzzed-out, bluesy climax as Pryor shows off some of his most impressive maneuvers on the guitar. “Ain’t My Fault” is a funny look at love and the complications all lovers inevitably encounter. With a hopping piano and blues-riddled riffs lining the exterior, it’s one of the catchiest offerings on the album. “Go to Sleep” is a beautiful farewell for the album, which ends with a soft banjo plucking, while Contrera’s sugarcoats lullaby lyrics atop. It’s a welcoming reminder that sleep can be, unlike alcohol, drugs or violent retaliation, the best prescription for a weary soul. Contrera’s doesn’t let you escape his country odyssey without one last well-crafted verse…Go to sleep now/lay your burdens low/go to sleep now/so everyone will know/that it’s a fine line to see/where you are and you want to be/turn your lamp down low/go to sleep now.

The Black Lillies have proven with “100 Miles of Wreckage” that they have arrived as one of the Southeast’s greatest offerings of modern Americana music. Contreras is a lyricist who can stand toe-to-toe with today’s best, while surrounding himself with a talented circle of bandmates that help carry the heartbreaks into important songs of reflection. This album is beautifully dark at its core, with lyrics and melodies that seem fit for a funeral or at least the wake. Never have I listened to an album and felt such a strong feeling of regret…well, at least not since I bought Sisqo’s Unleash the Dragon in 1999; but that’s another form of regret. Watch out for this band. They mean business.

Article originally written and published for Blank Newspaper, February 2011.

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