Upon an initial listen to the Boxmasters, Billy Bob Thornton's new "hillbilly rock" trio, its seems he finally got his heart's musical desire: a bona fide rock & roll band that is deeply rooted in Bakersfield country, Tennessee hillbilly boogie, and early- to mid-'60s pop via the British Invasion. Thornton, who goes by W.R. "Bud" Thornton, plays drums, shakes tambourines, and sings, with J.D. Andrew on bass, guitars, and harmony vocals, while Michael Wayne Butler handles lap steel, dobro, and lead guitars; along with a slew of other "other Boxmasters" guests. The extras will be part of the touring unit -- including another drummer. (This way Thornton can concentrate on "singing" up front where people can see him.) This project reeks of novelty and shtick, beginning with the packaging: two CDs -- one each of originals and covers -- in a cardboard box with a black-and-white photo of the three founding Boxmasters on the front wearing their trademark uniform of retro looking suits. That said, they deliver exactly what that say they do: a pretty seamless blend of decently written Buck Owens-style country tunes that are textured by reverb, echo chambers, and layered guitars, with simple harmonies and catchy melodies that recall the '60s. The music is great. Andrew and Butler and most of the "others" are phenomenal musicians; they manage any style they attempt with real expertise and no nonsense. That said, however, Thornton can't drum to save his life, and he can't sing, though he tries hard. He has none of the expressiveness or discipline that others sharing his technical deficiencies do. Therefore, despite the relative sophistication and humorous invention in his offbeat lyrics and spot-on melodies -- they are often very clever -- he comes off flat and dull compared to the rather exciting meld of guitars and sounds coming from the rest of the band.
It works fine in limited doses, such as on the opener "Poor House." A whining, wide-open pedal steel meets a one-two country boogie with strutting Bakersfield guitars and a Leon Payne-meets-Peter & Gordon melody. The tune is about a newly sober man who is off to Vegas to work with a plan to rescue his family's home from foreclosure (by playing the slots). "Build Your Own Prison" feels like the Commander Cody group with a different singer. Some of Thornton's tunes are just plain mean as snakes, such as in the funny "Shit List," or in the hostile, honky tonk rock of "2-Bit Grifter," or even in the gimmicky yet seemingly ironic, truck driving country of "I'm Watchin' the Game." The profanity is also funny for a minute or two but quickly becomes tedious. The covers disc is more interesting, especially for its choice of material. There is Michael Nesmith's"Some of Shelley's Blues," and "Propinquity," Ian Hunter's "Original Mixed Up Kid," Lee Clayton's savage "Memories of You and I," Mel Tillis' "Sawmill," the Who's "Kids Are Alright," Chad & Jeremy's "Yesterday's Gone," the Louvin Brothers' "Knoxville Girl," the Wilburn Brothers' "She's Lookin' Better by the Minute," and a Johnny Cash chunka-chunka read of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," where Thornton doesn't sound quite so somnambulant. The production on these tracks is quite compelling with pillowy reverb, sharp angles, and multi-dimensional, warm psychedelic textures -- check the weird combo of Daniel Lanois' and Cowboy Jack Clement's styles on the Clayton tune (the best thing on either disc). The Boxmasters might work live because there will be visuals; but merely as a listening exercise, it's best taken in small doses so the novelty doesn't wear off.