Hatched from the under-boot grime of various “blues and outlaw country” tribute groups, The Mill Rights pride themselves on expansive stylings. With a Colt six-shooter to their collective temple, they’d opt to call themselves “roots rock with a side of twang,” but the true glory of this Ontario-based unit – as exemplified on their self-titled debut The Mill Rights – is the ease at which they glide through genres. Rock, reggae, country and folk are all represented. Comprised of Patrick Aaron (bass/vocals), Joey Lee (drums/vocals) and Damien Van Johnson (guitar/vocals), this “fun yet serious” three-piece stretch their talents and, thus, own every bit of their sonic dalliances.
One need not peel many layers of this onion to spot the social themes planted in the lyrics. Presumably, they’re lasering out of the ocular cavity of the skull on the album’s cover. Or from the heart-to-hearts at the kitchen table in the band’s promotional photo; at least between swigs of jarred moonshine (also pictured) and turns on their crystal chess set (because, well, why not?).
“You’re Ready” the opener, blazes out of the gate with promise. This is country rock with momentum; a mesh of Foghat and domestic beer with tasty yet hard-driving licks. In other words: bring the spurs and leave the rhinestones. At least for these first four minutes. Because the energy doesn’t hold, but rather, morphs into an interpretive AM radio yield of C&W residue. In that sense, much of the record would sound right at home if played through cassette tape; a sun-bleached, wind weathered serving of aural comfort for non-coastals.
To say that the rest of the LP presents a lackadaisical exercise in straw chewing would be an errant quip. The band does explore emotion and tone, adding analog warmth along the journey. From the Hee Haw rassling of “Burst Your Bubble” to the Nazareth punctuated reggae (with laser beam effects) of “Stumblin’” to the transistor twang of “Bottom of the Barrel,” the tracks may stagger, but they heartily swing. They also – depending on your lenience for nostalgia – dip into a 1980’s stonewashed denim vibe. “Tonight (In Flight)” sounds like an outtake from The River, Bruce Springsteen’s farewell nod to boardwalks in lieu of open sky. Either that, or it’s something extra special from a reincarnated Beaver Brown Band. Likewise, “I Think I’m Going To Lose My Mind” is a fair crack at Marshall Crenshaw. And “The System Is Fake” channels the slick heft of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, appending a muted horn section to the chorus. Ideally, the latter should’ve been given license to rip holy hell, but it (disappointingly) retains composure.
The Mill Rights is a testament to a bygone era that predates the sheen of countrified pop and manufactured boyfriends. On that point alone, the band maintain tremendous integrity. Their modern twists on classic sounds keep the gears turning. And while 13 tracks for a debut release can skew a bit long, one can easily sift the diamonds from the filler, even if the best results aren’t tilting the culture. At least these guys smooth out an evening. I’ll take that over the anxiety of crystal chess any night of the week.
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