You already have a clue what the Pine Hill Haints sound like. You can’t even say the name without a drawl. The band hails from Alabama, and its music can be described, loosely, as Americana. That’s practically a given.
Also of note, and telling of what to expect from the band, is its affiliation to the Olympia, Wash.-based label K Records — an indie stalwart with a back catalog full of quirky, experimental, and charmingly amateurish lo-fi recordings. So, given this, that the Haints have quirks is hardly a surprise, either.
But to summarize the band according only to what one can infer from the most basic trivia is reductive, and boring. Getting the general idea of the Pine Hill Haints isn’t nearly as interesting as delving into the band’s backstory and its music.
Frontman Jamie Barrier formed the Haints in 1998 as a side-project to his rockabilly band The Wednesdays. He’d been introduced to Southern musical tradition by his grandfather, and with those influences leading the way, he named his new band after the Pine Hill Cemetery where he practiced singing to himself as a kid. Eventually, Barrier’s Pine Hill Haints expanded to include washtub-bassist and banjo player Matt Bakula, Katie Barrier — Jamie’s wife — on washboard and mandolin, and drummer Ben Rhyne as permanent members.
Until 2007, when K Records released Ghost Dance, the Haints had been a mostly DIY affair, relying on vagabond touring in the South and releasing albums with little fanfare or distribution other than what the band could muster from its shows. But they caught the attention of K’s owner, Calvin Johnson (frontman of the influential Beat Happening), who recorded the band’s 2004 EP, You Bury Your Hate in a Shallow Grave, for free. Then, of course he signed the band to his label and released Ghost Dance and last year’s To Win Or To Lose.
Listening to the band’s latest, those early inferences hold true. The instrumentation — acoustic guitar strums, banjo plunks, snare drum snaps, and washtub-bass pops — leaves the band deep in debt to Sun Studios country. But the attitude is a little more reckless, the approach more ramshackle. Barrier’s limited voice plays a rockabilly cool, even as he leads his band through more experimental passages.
“Intro” makes a bold statement playing like Suicide backed by Tennessee Three drummer W.S. Holland and with a theremin acting like a John Cale violin part. The staccato rhythm and guitar reverb that drive “Screaming Jenny” sound something like a hillbilly Police. And indeed some of these sonic detours work only as diversions from Pine Hill Haints’ more comfortable Americana sound.
On “How Much Poison Does It Take,” for example, Barrier puts his croon to work in a mournful string-band shuffle with a high-lonesome mandolin and robust accordion filling the space his aching vocal leaves open. Here, the band is at its finest. Here, the band lives up to — and exceeds — the expectations one would assume when approaching the band for the first time.
There’s no irony, no hackneyed hillbilly cliche, no forced hoots or hollers. It’s the song that best exemplifies what Pine Hill Haints can do with traditional sounds. If “Intro” proves to be the band’s most successful experiment, and “How Much Poison” proves its most successful trip through tradition, the middle ground might, at times, leave something to be desired. But with wins like these, we’ll grant the band a chance to try on new sounds. And we know there’s a decent shot it’ll work.