didn't suspect an album like this from Oakley Hall because I didn't know who they were. But even if I had known, I wouldn't have seen it coming. The group's release from earlier this year, Second Guessing, is a solid album of country-rock enlivened by some unashamed electric guitar, but not the sort to take the city by force. Gypsum Strings, however, drives like a train, and the cowcatcher's getting smeary.
"Confidence Man" sets the tone with an adamant guitar railing over a punchy bass and a bit of developing noise. Even before the band's notable harmonies have a chance to appear, Can take precedence over the Byrds. When the vocalists come in, they bend from emergency statement to paranoiac self-awareness ("the mansion on the mountain" is messing with their minds). The impression of a group of people nearly losing control lingers.
A few tracks later, they pose the seemingly innocuous question: "Lazy Susan, whatcha doing in your garden?" Even so, the train doesn't slow down. If you feel rushed, it's because getting somewhere is as important as the thing you're leaving. And if that's not true, maybe it's because the sound of the track clatter is its own importance. That each song is its own significance keeps the solos from breaking away into jams. The solos on Gypsum Strings show up to grab your hair and shake your head because the words can’t.
Oakley Hall knows enough to vary the mood; this disc doesn't spend its entire length tipping toward cliff edges and demonstrating the word “hurtle.” "Living in Sin in the USA" stands out as one of the disc's finer tracks in part because of its shift in tone. The group slows down without easing off, and the mild twang of Rachel Cox's easy delivery let the lyrics have their own weight. When she describes being "in a knockdown, drag-'em-out fight" with her significant other, she expresses weariness in the face of violence, because she's beaten and he's leaving. Worse, it sounds, is the death by hanging brought on by the song's title behavior. The harmony on the closing repetition of "Oh, why?" nails it all down.
Oakley Hall delivers its country hurt with rock techniques. "House Carpenter" brings back those big guitar hooks with the violence only described by its predecessor. The song builds to appropriate but not overdone crescendos, and then turns those peaks into the foothills of a greater ascent. The interplay between the guitars and drums keeps to a tight fit, even if the band sounds as reckless as always.
Except when they do the North Carolina mountain shack porch thing, which comes as a nice tension-reliever near the end of the disc. The sequencing is a bit odd—the second half of the disc strings together a series of mellower numbers. Closer "If I Was in El Dorado" essentially functions as an outro; by this point, that train has already blown its whistle and the passengers are disembarking. Everyone can relax a little now because the engineers avoided the anticipated crashes. My, my, wasn't that something, they say. You'd have to be crazy to ride on there again. But they will.