on August 18, 2009
It's All For New: Hazel's Latest Release Breaks The Norm, Molds A Form...
By Denton Ramsey
Sixteen years and seven studio albums into their career, Sister Hazel is soaring to new heights -- and from their self-titled white album days to their latest Release, these guys don't miss a beat. Ken Block, Drew Copeland, Ryan Newell, Jett Beres, and Mark Trojanowski are the masterminds behind the magic -- running through new musical scores like an All-Duke Basketball Team led by Coach K.
The five Hazel members are more than just band buddies -- they take music and their passion for writing and composing music to a brand new level with Release, breaking the norm by a long-shot in their approach to their newest album, due to hit stores on Aug. 18.
With Release, Sister Hazel has jumped into a category that may very well stand alone. This musical masterpiece, the bands seventh disc of original material, was a true team effort in its creation.
All five band members came to the table with numerous songs, and each member was given two tracks for the album, with Copeland and Newell garnering three apiece.
"We felt it was time for a different type of record, and we figured the best way to make a different kind of record is to change the record making process," Newell said.
The band also used a similar approach when recording their 2007 Christmas album, Santa's Playlist. In addition to contributing a song, the songwriter would then guide his design through the recording process.
"The concept worked so well for us," Trojanowski said. "We thought we'd use it on our studio album."
Compiling their songs and meeting at the band's favorite Gainesville rehearsal place, these five amazing musicians played through the material before traveling to Nashville to demo the tunes prior to Newell working on the tracks at his home studio, with band members dropping in from time to time.
In my opinion, the concept worked to perfection -- and I hope to see a similar approach in future records from the band. It's just amazing how much talent each and every Hazel member brings to the table. They're my modern-day Pink Floyd. I love these guys...
I had the wonderful privilege of interviewing Newell a few years ago when Absolutely came out ["Hazel High: A Newell Kind of Cool," September 2006]. What's also truly amazing about these guys is their interaction with their fans, from the Rock Boat to Hazelnut Hangs. When they say they look at the Hazelnuts as their friends, they mean it.
With the release of Release, the publicity department for the band came up with a wonderful concept of releasing a new band member's phone number every few days to the public for fans to call in and speak with the guys. What a promo!
When I spoke with Ryan, he remembered me -- and it was great to talk about life and changes in the past few years as well as the awesomeness of the new album. We also talked about upcoming shows and I can't wait to see these guys live in Texas!
Newell, Hazel's lead guitarist, won the title track spot with his song "Release," a country-infused hit that highlights his multiple talents - including solid lyrics, beautiful banjo playing and a debut on the cello.
The band also released an exclusive download of an acoustic version of "Release" which focuses on the raw sounds of music that Hazelnuts have come to love and adore. The acoustic version of "Release" is one of my favorites by Hazel in quite some time and brings back memories of Lift: Acoustic Renditions.
The second track on the new album is also all Newell, a guitar-grown tune called "Take a Bow," where Block's phenomenal use of voice and harmony come to the forefront in what will surely be a repeated radio request. It's no surprise that the formation of these first two hits came after a songwriters' getaway where Newell collaborated with the likes of Pat McGee, Emerson Hart, and Michael Daly.
Think old-school Tim McGraw for the first two tracks on Hazel's new album, with a twist of Ken Block's amazing voice (hopefully the band won't mind this Texan comparing their songs to country music).
Newell's tracks on Hazel's new album speak volumes to what he has personally been through lately and rings "breakup songs." Regardless of what you want to call Newell's recent tracks, they are destined to be Hazel hits for a lifetime.
"This has been a crazy year for the band," Newell said. "We've gone through my divorce, Drew lost his father, [and] Mark had a baby. You really find out who your true friends and family are when you go through life changes like that. You really find out who is special to you. We're tighter as a band than ever before, and I think we're not taking each other for granted."
The other track by Newell on Release is song number 11, called "Fade." This guitar-driven tune reminds me of the 90's music I grew up with and should make most Hazelnuts feel like fading away into the sweet sounds of music on Sister Hazel's latest recording.
The third track on Release is a song written by Copeland called "I Believe In You," and Block's vocals again shine brightly in this track. In all actuality, Block dropped one of his songs to work on this Copeland cut -- and in return, Drew allowed Ken to captain the track.
Think Jack Johnson meets Brian Wilson for "I Believe In You," once again with a twist of Ken Block's amazing voice. When I spoke with Drew as part of the Release promo, I could tell he was very excited about the new album -- and you could also tell how much he enjoys interacting with the fans.
Although this tune also has a country feel to it, Block's sweet sounds of Hazel bring this on home to Hazelnut fans and truly ring Sister Hazel from start to finish - especially in the way Block stresses the "I-I-I-I Believe In You" in the chorus of the song.
"Run For The Hills," the fourth track on Hazel's newest album, is a Copeland classic that brings Drew's voice to the lead and again centers on the incredible harmonies made by this group of very talented singer/songwriters.
This track bleeds Drew Copeland, and for anyone that has heard his solo country album, No Regrets, this track will make you feel right at home.
"Ken has always been our main songwriter," Copeland said. "It was nice this go-around to take this off his back, because all five of us have grown as writers, and we were able to really contribute on the songwriting front. It really makes a diverse record."
I meant to ask Drew when I spoke with him on the phone if he has ever crossed paths with my good friend, Todd Fritsch -- an up-and-coming country musician -- as their records were likely recorded in Nashville around the same time. In addition, I believe Copeland and Fritsch have a very similar sound in terms of how they approach country music.
The ninth song on Release is also Copeland's -- a beautiful piano-laced, guitar-induced, and harmony-driven song called "One Life" that may stir memories of the Eagles or Tom Petty. Or think old-school John Michael Montgomery meets Garth Brooks.
With Copeland in the lead and Block filling in with backup vocals, this is a two-stepping tune that could do very well in the country music circles. Which, with Copeland having released a solo album already classified in that genre, doesn't surprise me one bit as an avid Hazelnut.
Mark Trojanowski's first track on Release hits the airwaves with song five on the album, a true to form Hazel hit called "Better Way." And maybe a better way to describe this song, to steal a line from Krista Mettler's press release on the band's new album, would be "orchestral."
Just over two minutes into this song, the music begins to rise and fall like an old-school Beatles hit rocking the airwaves in the 1970s -- with Trojanowski steering the yellow submarine through the land of Hazelnuts...
When I spoke with Mark on the phone, music was actually one of the last things we talked about -- we got lost in conversation about Duke Basketball, kids leaving early for the NBA, and Coach K and the Blue Devils winning the 2001 Championship.
Trojanowski also wrote song number 10 on the new album, "Take It Back." And Mark helps take us all back to the early 90's in the style and rhythm this tune takes.
"Not too many bands have been around for as long as we have who have come up when we started," Trojanowski said. "A lot of that has to do with us having a true sense of a band, and not just one person fronting the band and everyone else treated differently. This new album demonstrates that democracy even more."
Song six on Release is the first on the album written by Block, a down-to-earth classic called "Walls & Cannon Balls." For those growing up listening to these guys play, this one will definitely bring back solid memories. It's a classic Block hit and truly is in tune with 90's style Sister Hazel music.
"Everyone got their fingerprints all over the record," Block said. "The ownership that we always felt on other records went to a different level on this one. Because of the way we completed this album, we were able to tap into a lot of different things sonically, vibe-wise, and thematically."
Song eight on the new album, "See Me Beautiful," is also Block's -- and boy does this one ring Drift. From beginning to end, I am (as always) amazed by what Block can do vocally and how amazing his voice mixes with the rhythmic beats his band mates produce through their instruments.
"Mark's songs tend to come in at one end of the spectrum where they're a little heavy and layered a lot more, and Drew, on the other hand, really likes to use a lot of space and a lot of intimacy with the words," Block said.
Talking to Ken as part of the Release promo was truly amazing. Not only have I always wanted to get some talk-time with Block, but it was a great conversation!
From discussion of the excitement for the new album to reminiscing about how my passion for Hazel began back in the mid 90's when Block and the rest of the band met with and comforted my friend Tracie Laymon after she had been life-flighted to the hospital in Houston, it was awesome talking to Block.
On top of that, Laymon was recently responsible for directing Block's first solo music video ["I Don't Mind," from Drift], which was shot in Los Angeles, California -- a fantastic video, might I add. However, I digress...
Save the best for last, right Jett? To be perfectly honest, Beres' final cut -- "Ghost In The Crowd" -- is an absolute favorite of mine off the new album. Think Pink Floyd meets Eric Johnson. Ryan's riffs on this piece blow me away -- they are incredible, especially for a studio album.
With band mates dealing with issues such as birth, death and divorce, this song was a unanimous pick to conclude the record. With a solid mixture of powerful lyrics and a remarkable melody, this Beres track truly hits home with Sister Hazel.
"We had a lot of personal stuff going on -- `Ghost in the Crowd' was my interpretation of life that was happening within the band," Beres said. "The album was an opportunity to say, `I have a vision for these songs and I'm going to see it through,' [and] the other four saying, `I trust that you are able to do that and will facilitate you in any way I can.'"
The other song by Beres on Release is song number seven, "Vacation Rain." This is a great song with a very memorable melody (think John Mellencamp meets Jackopierce). And this is a track I foresee many Hazelnuts quickly falling in love with...
It's absolutely amazing how much these guys have grown since first forming in the early 90's in Gainesville. And from the Rock Boat to Lyrics for Life, these guys give it their all -- and that's why I love them. So what's next from this group we've all come to know as Sister Hazel?
"Right now, we're on a tear," Block said. "And we hope to keep things really rolling."
Roll on, Sister Hazel. Rock and Roll on...