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3 Review

by Thom Jurek

Honeyhoney's 3 is the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Billy Jack. It has a far bigger -- and grittier -- sound than any of Suzanne Santo's and Ben Jaffe's previous offerings. Produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson) and recorded in his Nashville studio between touring engagements, its songs reveal the band's struggles between releases. For Billy Jack, the pair relocated to Music City and almost immediately after its release, their label was absorbed by Universal and they were left without a home. They changed agents, self-financed rugged tours, and recorded 3 not once but twice (they were dissatisfied with the original). They also moved back to L.A. Picked up by Rounder, the end result was worth the wait. Cobb captured the complete spectrum of Santo's voice here. In her big, passionate instrument, country, soul, rock & roll, blues, and bluegrass all come through with the graininess intact, and often within the same song. Check "Yours to Bear," a searing country love song where Santo shifts gears as she moves ever deeper into the lyrics. Musical styles blur as her voice becomes the genre. Stalwart pedal steel sessionman Robbie Turner (Johnny Cash) makes one of several guest appearances, swooping around Jaffe's guitars and Mellotron to underscore Santo's every phrase. "Back to You" begins with a backmasked percussion track followed by Santo's banjo and Jaffe's crunchy, heavily reverbed electric guitar. Lyrically it's the mirror image of its predecessor, a throaty, "I'm gone" blues drenched in distorted, psychedelic strings from Kiara Perico. The duo's trademark Americana is present in shuffling ballads like "Whatchya Gonna Do Now" and "Burned Me Out," and their trademark harmonies are as essential to their sound as Santo's lead vocal. The latter is especially poignant: Santo just lets go -- only grief, sorrow, and the willingness to forgive remain after her protagonist's love has gone. "You and I" begins as another Americana ballad, but psychedelic country and rockist dynamics create overtones that claim it amid a clatter generated by banjo, a full drum kit, churning Mellotron, swirling pedal steel, and the duo's harmonies. "Sweet Thing" is a straight-up, blazing rocker-cum-soul jam worthy of Bettye Lavette and Bonnie Bramlett. It sends the set off with a cinematic flourish. The duo's songwriting on 3 is tighter. There are more hooks, but melodies and lyrics are really close to the bone, leaving room for experimentation and the depth of emotional resonance. Cobb pushes Honeyhoney just enough. He reveals the sophistication in the songs along with newer sounds and textures. But he also reined in any perfectionist tendencies that would distract from the intensity in their performances. As a result, 3 is a full step up both creatively and musically.

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