Hardened And Tempered – The Trailer Sessions – Album Review
You know…if I’m being as honest with you all as I always am…this record took me some convincing.
When Hardened And Tempered started motoring through The Trailer Sessions with their quaint storyteller-folk style on “My Wildest Ride,” my first thoughts were about the killer production, the beautiful harmonies and the vivid imagery in the words. When it came to the next cut, “Heartbreak Transit Line,” I thought to myself, ‘well, these two sure can write a song,’ as they proved themselves further with even more present hooks in the writing. But it wasn’t until the third track, “Hard Winds,” had finished that it finally dawned on me & I realized I wasn’t just listening to another folk-act. At that point, I realized what I was hearing was something exceptional that has all the subtle nuances in music and attention to every detail that makes the real difference in the character and quality of the overall experience in what we hear…and sets a stunning band like this apart from the rest in their genre.
Like I said…it took me some convincing…I just didn’t say what I was being convinced of is all. That’s what slick writers like me like to call ‘writing something at the beginning so we can write something we think is clever after about a paragraph or so to bring it all around full-circle.’ Technically speaking of course.
To be fair, maybe I didn’t even know at first but I get it now…I’m convinced I’ve heard the magic in these two. Hardened And Tempered have got something sincerely special happening here…you’ll hear it too. To give them the credit they deserve, you can certainly notice the potential for what’s to come early on. “My Wildest Ride” sounds absolutely gorgeous, inviting you warmly into the music immediately. Their best moments vocally in their opening tune come from those moments where they’re harmonizing together; the lead is strong enough, but shines much brighter with sweet honey tones dripping in those moments that Kristin Davidson and Carolyn Philips of Hardened And Tempered share together. You’ll notice the musicianship, or rather, you SHOULD notice the musicianship here…because it’s seriously impressive. Everything feels like it’s exactly in the right place in the music, writing, ideas and production. Vocally, Hardened And Tempered certainly have their moments and I firmly believe that some of the less-rounded corners are part of the charm & honesty you’ll hear in their approach.
As I was saying in the opening, “Heartbreak Transit Line” really showcases the focus these two have when it comes to their ideas & songwriting. Putting those signature hallmarks of folk-music on display, “Heartbreak Transit Line” is just an much of a highlight for its lyricism as it is for their flawless performance. The lower-key approach and pace to this second tune seemed to suit the lead-vocals more and allow them the freedom to do what they do best, which is tell those stories in the most captivating way they can be told. Sometimes that’s nearly a whisper, sometimes its haunting melodies, sometimes it’s very, very close to what it’s like to simply hear someone tell a story with the right cadence and energy…no matter how you define what you’re hearing, the vocals sound fantastic here. The accenting violin and guitar tones that fill in the atmosphere are perfection…”Heartbreak Transit Line” is the kind of tune that has such a defined sound that it’s able to transport you out of your own world and right into theirs. Like I’ve been trying to tell you…you can hear the magic creeping into their music more & more over the course of these first two songs already…they certainly do what they do very well – and things are about to get all-kinds of next-level good with “Hard Winds” to follow.
Until you reach the chorus of “Hard Winds,” you’re bound to notice that comforting, familiar feeling you can hear in this melody quickly in the verse and hear a resemblance to “Stand By Me” through the bass-lines, vocal-flow and pace to the song. There are similarities for sure – but make no mistake, we’re still talking about completely different songs here overall. Hardened And Tempered find themselves in a chorus that’s much more similar to something like Iron & Wine…which is…umm…also awesome? Essentially what I’m saying is that you might feel like this song has always been waiting to be a part of you – that’s how incredibly accessible this song is, how strong it is, how well written and performed it is. The vocals are beyond perfection throughout this entire song, the melody and progression of “Hard Winds” is sincere, emotional, heartfelt…real. Everything about “Hard Winds” connected – I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Pedal-steel guitar sounds absolutely stellar, the ukulele-led melody is gorgeous – but I gotta hand this one over to the microphone for the overall award. This song is sung as good as it could possibly be…tons of personality, character and beautiful harmonies. “Hard Winds” has that kind of exceptional, intangible magic that reveals a potential beyond their years…a bright future that’s theirs for the taking if they can tap directly into the stunning instincts & inspiration that led them to this tune.
Of course, whenever this happens, I get super-greedy. You know what I mean? Like now that I know, without a doubt, that these two incredible songwriters are capable of such extraordinary music, I’m gonna want it all the time…I’m just selfish like that. Do I get what I want from “Ricochet” following “Hard Winds?” No! But what song out there could follow that one? Not to dwell on the subject, but “Hard Winds” is really that damn good…ANY song coming after that tune would have a much tougher time standing out. “Ricochet” is still a decent song in its own right. To be fair, I think it does just about as good of a job of creating a genuinely authentic sound in its atmosphere as “Heartbreak Transit Line” does ultimately, it’s another perfectly committed performance from all concerned…but I do also think it’s going to take longer for people to notice this dusty Americana-folk tune nestled in between the spectacular “Hard Winds” and the bright, soaring vocals on “House Of The Soiled Dove” to follow.
Bottom line is Hardened And Tempered DO give you a reason to keep listening in each and every song on The Trailer Sessions. Whether it’s the storytelling aspect you hear run deep through the veins of a track like “Ricochet,” or the more vocalized melodies and sweetness you’ll find on “House Of The Soiled Dove,” this duo smartly mixes the atmospheres on this album track to track…it feels like an adventure. Considering much of it is apparently based on Kristin’s experience ‘living in a trailer on the Texas-Mexico border,’ it makes sense…I’m sure she’s seen & experienced plenty from that perspective – and you can hear the vivid imagery of her surrounding inspirations in the lyricism all throughout this record. Reflective, nostalgic tunes like “House Of The Soiled Dove” again reveal the focus in the songwriting and execution here; not only do the lyrics highlight the themes of memories and experiences long past, but even the sound & style of the song sounds like a respective nod to the old-school. I personally think those vocals bear an uncanny resemblance to a young Tammy Wynette in her prime on “House Of The Soiled Dove.” Gorgeous performance all the way through from Hardened And Tempered and their team of ace-musicians lending a hand, notably the warm glowing production from the assistance of Grammy Award-winning producer/Austin City Limits Hall Of Fame member, Lloyd Maines, who produces this entire record in such a smooth way your ears will want to make this whole album their new best friend.
The gentle twang of guitars and bold sounds of the harmonica open-up “Dry County” in the middle of the record; I felt like this was a perfect track to have in the middle of the record due to the fact that I wasn’t always sure about it. Sometimes I found myself hoping for those tones in the chorus to come through a bit more evenly to hit that sweet-spot; I think you can hear a bit of trepidation in the performance on this cut that you can’t find in the others. Maybe it was one of the last cuts written before the release, maybe they weren’t as familiar with this tune or as comfortable with it as the rest. I dunno…it’s hard to say and hard to be too judgmental overall – I really do think they did a fantastic job with the flow of the melody-line in the verse and the vocals there. Even the idea itself is intact as far as I’m concerned…they could probably benefit from another rip or two on the vocals of “Dry County” though…at this point in the record, I think Hardened And Tempered have shown they’re more than capable of hitting this one spot-on too, given the time & opportunity to do so. We all know as artists that sometimes we have that, sometimes we don’t…you make the best of the time you’ve got when the red light is on and the studio doors are shut. I have my suspicions that this was one might have been a bit rushed…but at the same time, I can’t deny there are a ton of parts in the vocals that I do love too.
Sometimes the best way to describe something is just to lay it out as straight & plain as possible. I remember way back a couple decades asking a friend of mine what Death Cab For Cutie was like after finding the Postal Service, long before I went down that road…he responded with the purest of answers: “When they get it right, man, they get it RIGHT.” He was right about that incidentally. Ultimate point being – there are moments in certain projects like Hardened and Tempered that are bound to completely connect to you, like “Family Secrets” will instantly, whereas a song like “Dry County” before that is searching for that similar magic but not quite finding it. That make any sense at all? Echo? I think it’s something you can certainly hear from the moment the vocals start in “Family Secrets” that they know exactly how they want this one to sound and how to get it there…that trepidation is gone and it’s been replaced by a confident mix of sincerity and perfect tones to match the atmosphere. Musically, probably one of my favorite tunes on the record for sure…I love the gentle melody of this song and how well it both pairs-with & complements what’s happening in the vocals. Harmonies are wonderful, the lead is fantastic, the piano is the perfect accent to the melody in the music, and much like any family would experience themselves, you get that mix of up/down emotion in the sentiment of the lyrics. “Family Secrets” is a real tender highlight on The Trailer Sessions…I think you can feel that there’s something in the air, writing & tone of this song that seems 10% more personal somehow; whatever’s causing the strength of their connection to this track…continue to embrace that magic Hardened And Tempered – this is a beautiful tune that mixes melancholy and melody masterfully together.
Here’s the thing. Not every song we write is necessarily going to be the single from the record, nor should they all be written that way. Some songs are perfect in their own respects…like you’ll hear something and it’ll remind you of a memory you love, or the song will just fit the mood you’re in. “Centerville” is undoubtedly a little sleepy with its energy…kind of feels like the audio-equivalent of what you’d see when you open your eyes first thing in the morning before the buzz of the world starts making noise around you…when it’s peaceful. So I’ll say this…”Centerville” isn’t likely to be the track from the album that goes and lights up the charts for Hardened And Tempered, but I do strongly believe that this will be a track that people will latch onto more & more with repeat listens and that the sincerity you hear in the vocals is the sound of a song that will LAST. Time and again as the album played here at the studio, “Centerville” would come on and I could physically feel myself relax. It’s a quaint, pleasant and comfortable sound…not over-ambitious, not pretentious…blissfully honest and sweetly real. Through the descriptive imagery in the storytelling of the lyricism, you really get to ‘go’ with Hardened And Tempered into “Centerville” and just take a moment to chill out as you listen to a beautiful tune. The more I heard it, the more I appreciated it…like I said, not every song needs to be the single…in fact, as we all well-know, many of the most memorable moments of any of your favorite artists & bands aren’t always going to be the ones you hear on the radio…certainly nothing wrong with that. For instance…sometimes that trade happens to be made for a different quality; in the case of “Centerville” it’s likely for the poetical lyricism and imagery in the words, which is all aces on this track, and overall it features some of my favorite lyrics on the entire record. I deem it a worthy trade – radio be damned!
It’s a bit of a risk I suppose, having “Centerville” and its sleepy vibes heading into the gentle sliding guitars on “Crossing Over The Rio Grande” – the energy is definitely mellow at this stage of the record. “Crossing Over The Rio Grande” takes a bit of a cue from its title…you can imagine that “Crossing Over The Rio Grande” likely wasn’t a straight line from point-A to point-B…and whether it was intentional or not, this song feels like it wanders a little before it finds its main strengths. I think the backing vocals are strong, harmonies too…they always seem to have those working in their favor…there are flashes of brilliance in the lead as well…like right around the two-minute mark; that slight shift in the progression and the melody sounds like perfection to me. Mid-tempo tunes are some of the hardest to deliver when it comes to vocals…it can be tough to find that right balance between energy and tone; I think there are perhaps a few spots that you can feel that struggle slightly, but for the most-part they’re pretty much right where they want to be. I have a feeling the reason it’s harder to get as into “Crossing Over The Rio Grande” more than any other on the record has a lot to do with that mid-tempo pace coming after such a similarly relaxed energy in “Centerville” just prior.
Things pick up a bit with the tempo and pace moving along with a bit more spirit on “Leavin’ In The Morning.” As far as songs that I think would translate to a live-setting most successfully on this record, I’d put this one up there with the top of the potential nominations. It’s an interesting tale of love when it comes right down to it – I like the way the lyrics work on this song and leave a lot open to interpretation…I think Hardened And Tempered have written a tune with “Leavin’ In The Morning” that many people will find their own personal attachments/meanings to and inspiration from. Good tune though…music is as spot-on and flawless as it has been throughout the entire record, the approach to the vocals works strongly. There are multiple moments in “Leavin’ In The Morning” from the breakdown to the call & answer chorus at the end that I could easily imagine people in the crowd singing along with. The hooks on this cut chip away at you the more you hear it; you can try to resist it if you like, but there’s a charming sound in the expression of the vocals that is bound to convince you to listen to the end.
Hardened And Tempered end their record with a strong finish and multiple highlights worthy of mentioning on the final track of The Trailer Sessions, “Path Already Paved.” The opening verse for instance…that’s gold right there…the way the lead-vocals opens this song puts that chill in your spine with the gentleness of the music slowly filling in the background, joined by the ever-present harmonies that have lined the material throughout this album. I think the lyricism stands-out once again; they’ve done a great job with all their Americana storytelling tunes and definitely have many strengths when it comes to how they write & express their words. The music, gentle, mild, calming, beautiful…you get to drift away with Hardened And Tempered and dream with them on this track…and ultimately, that’s a lot of what this final track is about…the places we go in our mind, in our lives, and the dreams we have & share together. Symbolic in a sense…because these two should be dreaming big together, and looking forward to that open road, ready to embrace the future that’s awaiting them.
Look. I know I can ramble a lot…I’d be the last person to dispute that when it comes to talking music. Hopefully by now, a few of you out there have noticed that a longer article is a genuine sign of me believing there’s something (or in cases like this, multiple somethings) worth talking about…a humble effort to do my part & whatever I can to help the independents on their way. If I’m critical, it’s usually towards those that I feel like have the most potential…because I have faith that they can genuinely rise to the occasion. There is SO MUCH potential that exists within Hardened And Tempered…and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’ve heard serious audio-magic from them already on many of the songs from this record like “Hard Winds,” “House Of The Soiled Dove” and “Family Secrets” to name a few specifically. The more that these two tap into that sincerity, expression and emotion they’re capable of communicating through music and find themselves a way to establish that authentic connection to their material and make it as real for us as those tunes came out, the further these two will go. All the right pieces are here and the overall results of The Trailer Sessions highlight their passion for inspired folk-songwriting and a genuine WANT to be doing what they’re doing…I think these two are gonna be just fine out there and out on the road doing what they love for many years to come.
Find out more about Hardened And Tempered at their official website: https://www.hardenedandtempered.com/