Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2008, Volume 15, #6
Written by John Metzger
Tue June 24, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Billy Bob Thornton’s transition from film to music has not been easy. Where most artists learn their trade in relative obscurity, Thornton has been forced, because of his screen-star status, to find his niche within the bright and often unforgiving glare of the public spotlight. Of course, there are those who would envy the open access he has had to record labels and worthwhile venues. Still, he hardly has been placed in an ideal situation. Although he immediately found his groove as a songwriter, he undeniably has struggled as a performer. Thornton’s albums mostly have received lukewarm responses from the press, and when he took the stage to open for Elvis Costello in 2002, he looked downright awkward and unsure of himself.
Six years later, it appears as if Thornton not only has done a remarkable job at navigating these tricky waters but also that he has worked a majority of the kinks out of his approach. His latest project is as a member of The Boxmasters. Although he always will be the focal point of the ensemble, he has done as much as he possibly can to recede into the anonymity of the setting provided by the outfit. It was a wise move, one that suits him quite well. While it’s true that Thornton serves as the band’s front man, The Boxmasters’ eponymous debut clearly is a collaborative affair. The material on the collection is split almost evenly between its two discs: The first half features original songs that were penned by Thornton and J.D. Andrew, while the latter portion is comprised entirely of cover tunes.
Thornton is not a natural vocalist, not by any means, but his pals in The Boxmasters seem to understand this better than his previous collaborators did. Although Thornton’s style of singing continues to be less than perfect, his backing band does a wonderful job of framing his voice, masking his deficiencies in the same manner that his humorous tales hide the pain and anguish of his aching heart. Considering the familiarity that they offer, it would be easy to gravitate initially to the collection of cover songs, which range from Michael Nesmith’s Some of Shelley’s Blues to the Appalachian murder ballad Knoxville Girl and from The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand to The Who’s The Kids Are Alright. In truth, however, it’s the original material — which lyrically owes a huge debt to John Prine, Robert Earl Keen, and Kris Kristofferson — that fares best.
Like Thornton’s previous endeavors, The Boxmasters’ self-titled set draws abundantly from the classic country canon, though all of its tracks also are delivered with a feisty, rock ’n‘ roll flair. In a sense, what the group has to offer is a crisply executed blend of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings, albeit one that is performed by a hybridized version of The Knitters and The Sadies. The collective powers its way through the snarling sentiments of I’ll Give You a Ring as well as the Sun Studio-on-steroids fury of That Mountain; even mid-tempo ballads like The Work of Art contain an edge.
On each of the eponymous affair’s discs, the songs either tumble directly into one another or are united by strange interludes. I’m Watchin’ the Game and 20 Years Ago, for example, are separated by a blast of spooky organ, while the conclusion of The Last Place They Would Look crosses from Pink Floyd to an Eastern motif. There’s no doubt the effect is, at times, a little gimmicky. Yet it also is quite effective and compelling. Essentially, this gives the outing the aura of a very weird and freakishly psychedelic radio station. It dutifully holds one’s interest long enough for the playful spirit of the collection to obliterate the preconceived connotations of what a celebrity-sung outing would sound like. To put it in the simplest of terms, Thornton and The Boxmasters are having a grand, old time, and their enthusiasm is outwardly infectious.
Of Further Interest...
The Boxmasters is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box