Always an extremely popular live and festival band, and justifiably so, Police Dog Hogan's previous three albums have perhaps done insufficient justice to their undeniable collective musicianship. Songs like 'Shitty White Wine', 'Moutarde' and 'A Man Needs A Shed' might have given some the impression that this is a band all for having a good time but who don't take their music too seriously. Banjo-player Tim Dowling's self-deprecating Guardian columns may not have helped belie that view either.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and Wild By The Side Of The Road should bury that myth once and for all. Singer and main songwriter James Studholme has come up with a strong collection of narrative songs, and the band's arrangements complement the compositions superbly.
Evolved over the years, since forming in 2009, into a tight eight-piece band, Police Dog Hogan now combine guitars, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, accordion, trumpet, keyboards, bass and drums to create a rollicking fusion of country, pop, bluegrass and folk-rock. All of these genres are represented here.
The album kicks off with the euphemistically macabre 'Tyburn Jig', its upbeat arrangement and jaunty rhythm belying its grisly gallows narrative. The bouncy banjo intro to 'Dixie' then heralds the touching love story of an eponymous country music fan from Birmingham. These opening songs are somehow 'typical' Police Dog Hogan; strong hooks, memorable choruses, arrangements which make full use of the vast array of instrumentation at their disposal. Both will be fine singalong additions to the live set.
In stark contrast, 'Devon Brigade' is a moving first-person ballad, evocatively imagining the story of one young member of the Devonshire Regiment's part in the Great War against a simple background of guitars and strings. Of the growing canon of musical centenary commemorations, this is up there for me with The Changing Room's equally poignant 'Names On A Wall' as a contender for the best example.
After that, we have to be eased gently back into the jollier material, and 'Tomorrow's Boys' is an appropriate bridge to it, a nostalgic foot-tapping trip into the past. Then we're back into familiar territory, the cheery 'In The Country' is a lively paean to Studholme's Devonshire roots and landscape, while 'Black Road' is an energetic accordion and trumpet-heavy two and a half minutes of unadulterated Police Dog Hogan fun. One suspects it will last a little longer when played live.
'Let My Spirit Rise' is a fine example of Studholme's more mature song-writing and is performed here with some fine trumpet and Hammond organ-playing in the arrangement. 'The One On The Left' is another finely-crafted song, a banjo-led, wistful retrospective look at a past relationship, seen through an old photograph. 'East Nashville Back Porch Fix' meanwhile is a full-on hoedown of a song, sung from a band-member's perspective, and great fun.
There is something for everyone on this album, from Bellowhead-esque cacophonies to melancholy tributes to the West Country of the past. Songwriting, musicianship, arrangements, production and band alchemy are all captured at their height, and combine to produce a delightful dish of musical mellifluousness. Never was the phrase 'more than the sum of its (not inconsiderable) parts' more appropriate.
Wild By The Side Of The Road is released on 17th February and an official launch gig is taking place on 22nd February at Nell's Jazz and Blues Club in West London, followed by an extensive UK tour throughout March and April. Catch them if you can.
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