REVIEW: Who? What? When? Why? & Werewolves?’ “Greatest Hits” Hits the Spot with Its Dark Lyricism and Defiantly Indie-Bluegrass Vibe

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While plenty of bands have mixed bits of hard rock or punk flavoring into their Americana / Alt Country sound — Whiskeytown, the Waco Brothers, Old 97s and Uncle Tupelo all come quickly to mind — few have completely changed course and jumped directly from rock’s basic aesthetic, with its three-chords- and-some-angst sonic palette, to the more musically challenging and nuanced genre of bluegrass. But that’s essentially what the defiantly named Who? What? When? Why? & Werewolves? did in evolving from long-time Philadelphia rockers The Tressles into their current form as the 6W’s.

Not that their cheekily-named debut album Greatest Hits, to be released on March 29, doesn’t have a punkish attitude of its own. The band’s obscure, intentionally unwieldy name indicates right up front that it doesn’t give a fuck about what Music Row thinks. As band leader and songwriter Andrew Fullerton explains regarding the album’s impetus: “I think you get to a certain point in your life, and you really have to ask yourself what you’re making music for. With the state of the music industry being what it is, there’s not much point in making a record unless you feel really driven to create something.”

Hence, their website explains, 6W’s intention on this album is to “celebrate making music purely for the sake of creation” while “championing the stories of everyday people trying to make their way in this crazy life.” The title Greatest Hits speaks to the band’s deliberate refusal to concern themselves with any notion of trying to produce “hits.” “As I’ve gotten older, the scope of my life has gotten narrower,” Fullerton, who works as an executive chef at a Delaware-based restaurant, explains. “I go to work, I see my family, I play in this band, and that little life, it’s perfect for me. If people don’t care about my music, it’s still good enough for me.”

As for the impetus behind the band’s radical genre change, Fullerton relates, “People would always tell me [when they were in The Tressels] ‘You write such beautiful, thoughtful lyrics, but we can’t ever hear them,’ so it was somewhat motivated by an interest in showcasing the lyrical content a bit more.” Of course, he adds with a wry laugh, “But to be honest, we just got tired of carrying so much gear around.”

Whatever the truth of that last statement, Fullerton’s literate yet earthy lyrics really do shine on Greatest Hits, along with banjo player Matt Orlando’s vocal harmonies and Pete Clark’s fiddle playing. Fullerton and Orlando have been playing music together for 15 years; their prior tenure with The Tressels — which released eight full length albums and gained a serious local reputation before calling it quits — helped them hone their vocal harmonies to the point where their seamless blending causes many listeners to mistake them for brothers. Throw in Clark’s fiddle and some nimble upright bass playing by Brian Grabski and you have all the necessary ingredients for a highly listenable yet intense, emotional brand of progressive indie-folk-bluegrass (for lack of a better term).

Mixed by Kyle Pulley and tracked by Mark Watter of Lizdelise at the Headroom in the gritty Kensington area of Philadelphia — where bands like Hop Along, Kississippi and New Jersey rockers The Pine Barons previously recorded albums — the seven song album was recorded, edited, mixed and remixed in seven days. “Kyle Pulley, the mixing engineer, was on tour with his band Thin Lips so he wasn’t present for the tracking,” Fullerton recounts. “Which was actually really interesting because he sort of re-built the songs and made them more expansive. I’ve never worked with a mixing engineer who really cared about the songs themselves [and] not just the technical/sonic template aspect of the process.”

The collection’s opening track, “Bluebird,” begins as a worried-sounding folk ballad, but takes on a wild intensity as Orlando’s banjo and backing vocals kick in behind Fullerton’s lamentation (or warning?) that “There’s a hundred thousand miles on this lemon of a heart / It’s not forever, it’s a pretty good start.” “I wouldn’t lie to you,” he assures the listener, but then the tone shifts: “I know, it surprised me too / Raise your hand and tell me about the bluebird.”

The hundred thousand miles grow to a hundred million by the next pre-chorus; the melody continues as before, but the lyrics get replaced with moaning wordless “ooooh – ooooh – ooooh’s”; the vocals rise in intensity, and suddenly the song stops at 3:05 in. It restarts with quiet guitar strumming, to which banjo, bass and fiddle are incrementally added; the mileage grows to a hundred billion; the chorus kicks in again with an even wilder intensity, and the song ends with a five-note flourish that lands it right in the lap of the album’s next tune, which commences forthwith. It’s an audacious, whirlwindy and auspicious start to the album.

That next tune, “John Blonde Sing My Eulogy,” takes things in a different direction. The banjo rolls take primacy at first, with the guitars, fiddle and a piano gradually blending in quasi-orchestrally behind them. Meanwhile Fullerton’s darkly reedy vocals confide that “It might seem grey from far away/ But it’s a white flag that I’m waiving to my enemy.” Framed by the refrain “If it’s twenty-to-one, two hundred versus two hundred / It don’t matter, I can’t remember who won,” it’s hard to tell if this song is the lament of Civil War soldier longing to breach the battle lines and head home, or the tale of a teenage runaway’s gradually dawning remorse. Either way, it’s a powerfully affecting tune.

I have to share Fullerton’s story about the source of the catchy “Rattail” — which premiered here on Americana Highways — since it’s so quintessentially Philly:

“Rattail” is about growing up awkward. More specifically it’s about my younger brother Sean and the wicked rattail mullet he had in the 90’s because he worshipped Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk. I remember our parents fighting about the fact I dyed my hair blue when I was 14. I was ashamed and embarrassed that it mattered that much to either of them. But now that seems so insignificant in my life.

The moral of the story, he summarizes, is: “Don’t be afraid to be a weirdo, have a bad haircut or be awkward. Hair grows out.” Americana Highways’ editor Melissa Clarke aptly describes this song as “a coming-of-age saga” whose “fluid banjo and easy rhythms” mate with its “lyrical confession of vulnerability” to evoke deeply “nostalgic emotions.” Having personally embraced some pretty awful hair styles over the years I can definitely relate to the song’s sentiment, as I suspect many other listeners will as well.

“Wilma” is the creepiest and darkest song on the album, and also its most memorable tune. Told from the point of view of a hardscrabble, rail-riding psycho named Cyrus who stalks the song’s namesake heroine across country, the song strikes a disturbing psychological chord. With lyrics like “Tell all your lovers you love ‘em so / Watch who you’re sleeping with cause he’s the first to go,” and “You look surprised to see my face / I know you thought you had escaped / But I’ve got a couple things that I just needed to say / Don’t you try and get away, don’t you try and get away!”, this is the dark, over-the-top stalker tune your mother warned you about. It’s obsessive, casually threatening and openly menacing by turns, in the vein of the Louvin Brothers’ “Knoxville Girl” and Matthew Sweet’s “Winona.” The melody of that rising chorus will stick with you like a bad nightmare, too — though in a good, hummable way. The mournful fiddle and click-clacking percussion provide the perfect unsettling undercurrent.

“Tell Me a Secret” conveys a similar though less threatening darkness: a darkness of the secretive soul, if you will. Fullerton describes it as “a swampy front-porch-psychedelic-gospel tune.” “We were referencing the Black Keys and The Band a lot,” he explains. “I think we found a middle ground between those two influences on this song. The song is all about little wishes we make and little secrets we keep. Quitting smoking, getting to hash it out with ‘the one that got away.’ I did actually quit smoking for real after I wrote this song.”

The short and sweet rumbler “Stacy’s in the Army” references a drag queen Fullerton and Orlando befriended after a gig who they later discovered was an officer in the US Army. “His story really struck me because I’ve never served in the military, and I don’t think I could ever do it,” Fullerton says. “But you hear over and over that the army defends your freedom, and I thought, ‘Stacy is really living that mantra. He serves his country for the right to be able to live however he wants to, and for him that means the freedom to be Stacy.’” As the song’s chorus matter-of-factly puts it: “Stacy’s in the army wearing lingerie / Don’t know what the major general’s gonna say / But he’s out there fighting for us everyday.”

“Priscilla” highlights Fullerton’s dark lyricism and rounds out the album with a fittingly mournful yet strangely upbeat vibe. “You’re down in a hole that’s big enough for two / Well I’ll follow you down if you ask me to” the song begins, and it continues in that desperate vein. “I thought about my mother’s and my father’s bills / I thought of mixing vodka with NyQuil.” “And I thought of having faith, and I thought of having patience / But kids today have no imagination,” Fullerton intones over undulating banjo and fiddle swells. Memorable lines like “Some things arrive that you just can’t take back” and “We had no instructions just a whole lot of buttons / So you had to push them all” come in a rush before the song ends with the disturbing twin couplets: “Got no desire to be the best / I just had to be your bulletproof vest / They had to take your smile and the heart from your chest / I’ll prevent them from taking the rest.” As with the rest of the collection’s tunes, there’s no lack of drama here.

Though clocking in at a short 21:50 running time, Greatest Hits is a fully satisfying collection, thanks to its rich variety of lyrical perspectives and musical textures. And though technically a “debut” album, it has — not surprisingly, given the longtime collaboration of core band members Fullerton and Orlando — the confident feel of a more mature unit’s release, though there’s also an exuberance and surprise to it. In that sense it’s the best of both worlds. At the very least, it’s proof positive that playing music for its own sake — and not giving a shit about whether anyone else likes it or not — can definitely pay off.

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More info on the Who? What? When? Why? & Werewolves?, including tour dates, can be found at: http://6wmusic.com .

Americana Highways’ world premiere of “Rattail” can be found at: https:// americanahighways.org/2019/01/30/song-premiere-rattail-by-who-what-when- why-and-werewolves-from-upcoming-album-greatest-hits/ 

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