Sweet Pepper Jelly is the sophomore release from Seattle, Washington sextet Great American Trainwreck. The band, formed in 2017, is fronted by Stephanie Ward (vocals/acoustic guitar). She’s joined by Chuck Dunklin (tenor guitar/mandolin), Andy Basinger (keyboards), Dan Rogers (bass), Dave Bush (percussion) and Judd Wasserman (vocals).
This album fits right into the Americana genre. The tracks feature guitars (electric and acoustic), piano, and organ over straightforward bass parts which are locked in with drums. There’s a little pedal steel (capably played by Matt Teske) worked in here and there for good measure. Ward’s sweet vocals take the lead most of the way with Wasserman’s backing work blending nicely. They describe their music as a blend of “multiple genres, including southern rock, bluegrass, and classic country”, and that’s precisely what they’ve delivered.
Great American Trainwreck sets itself apart from your standard Americana group with its use of keyboards. On Sweet Pepper Jelly, they’re much more prominent than we’ve come to expect. Basinger’s organs and pianos are everywhere, and many songs feature solo sections on both organ and piano. With all of this playing, he must have been exhausted by the end of the recording sessions. I hope the band gave him an extra session fee, or least a gift card for a manicure.
The songs, penned by Ward and Dunkin, are straightforward and catchy. They tell us that they aimed for “melodic hooks and intense harmonies without sacrificing simple song structure and thoughtful lyrics” and they’ve succeeded. Little passages throughout will catch your ears and have you singing or humming along.
There are winners all over the twelve-song set, but my two favorites were “Hold Onto Me” and “Great Divide.” “Hold Onto Me” is a solid pop-country ditty that grabs you straight away with its opening guitar leads. The vocal harmonies really shined, and Basinger drops in a particularly funky overdriven electric piano solo. “Great Divide” finds the band letting it out a bit, and features another Basinger electric piano solo. Bush finally gets his turn in the spotlight with a drum breakdown that morphs into a drum-and-bass groove where he digs into the bag of tricks for the vibraslap and other fun percussion bits. The ending reminded me of a Dream Academy tune, if it had been run through a Nashville production studio.
Other fun tracks to check out include “Lay With You” (with Basinger doing his best Floyd Cramer impression) and “Rail Rider,” which presents itself as a dance track with its horns and rhythm guitar figures.
Give Sweet Pepper Jelly a taste: you’ll find something to spread into your Americana rotation.
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