Scott Hrabko & the Rabbits
"Biscuits and Gravity"
Scott Hrabko’s new album "Biscuits and Gravity" is a songwriter’s showcase. By that, I don’t just mean that the album includes a bunch of songs Hrabko wrote though it does. What I mean is that Hrabko has placed his songs, their lyrics and melodies, within settings that allow us to really hear them. Put another way, thanks to Hrabko’s sly and warm vocals, his band’s typically slinky rhythms and brooding arrangements, and (very important) his use of the recording studio as instrument, he puts his songs over in ways that make us eager to hear them again. Unlike many self-identified singer-songwriters, particularly ones at the local level, Hrabko grasps the distinction between documenting some solid songs and making a good record.
"Biscuits and Gravity" is a very good record. Hrabko’s first album, 2013’s "Gone Places," featured swell songs, as well. I’d particularly love to hear that disc’s “The Fool in the Song” covered by, say, Raul Malo. But the sound on that earlier set was much thinner than on this new one, the arrangements more generic. It was hardly the first promising local debut to sound as if it were cut live while also lacking the energy and presence that are the chief benefits (well, there’s cost) of that approach.
The difference between that earlier release and "Biscuits and Gravity" is like the difference between night and day, between a demo and an album destined to go down as one of this year’s finest area releases. And it’s the album’s sonic improvements that spotlight the album’s real stars: Hrabko’s wry sense of humor, his eye for detail and a skillful use of language. “A lonesome load of laundry, an abandoned band of gold,” he sings on the twangy “Died and Gone to Heaven.” “All that rollin’ and tumblin’, it was gettin’ kind of old/ She picked me up and dusted me off — lo and behold!” I love that. These lines scan like poetry.
Elsewhere Hrabko’s wordplay seems less thematically meaningful than merely clever: His “biscuits and gravity,” for example, or the line “time-lapse pornography” (both from a nothing-works-out-and-it-just-figures number called “Ordinary Guy”). The emotional effect here is slightly distancing, a strategy to keep at arm’s length the tangled self-recriminations of the song. Then again, a good play on words can be its own reward — particularly when the punch lines come underscored by licks and atmosphere as arresting as those delivered by Hrabko’s Rabbits.
Hrabko and his Rabbits' music is Americana in the broadest sense. His weary-but-still-warm voice is bluesy without ever singing the blues. He’s not a roots act but he’s always rootsy, and he combines well-worn genre elements in unexpected ways. Jason Beers on saw adds a lazy menace to “California Got My Baby.” “Lorraine” is a western desert ballad, painted with accordion, clip-clop rhythm, and sun-kissed harmonies from Emily Tummons. At the same time, its bridge is pure pop-rock, and its rambling is romantic and (just a little) existential rather than geographic.
The best moment is probably the angsty and bored “I Dreamed I Quit My Job.” “We got a bad attitude at the counter, and a line going out the door,” Hrabko grouses. “Clean up on aisle 11, no one to mind the store.” Good lines, those, from a song full of them. I bet, though, that it’ll be the track’s greasy groove (think John Hiatt meets pre-pop Dire Straits), its gum-popping guitar and eye-rolling harmonies, that’ll have you playing the record on repeat and turning it up.
David Cantwell is the author of “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” the co-author of “Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles,” and a contributor to Newyorker.com.