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{Review} Kristen Kelly & Modern Day Drifters-Placekeeper

After splashing on the scene in 2008, Modern Day Drifters began their journey down the road traveled by so many bands. Trying to find their way up the long hill to relevance and demand among the hallowed greats of Texas music’s past. Their first album was a self-produced rough gem that displayed a great deal of promise and poise hidden among the jagged edges.
At the time the band was comprised of an array of players and led by duo lead vocals from Kristen Kelly and Joe Churchill. Shortly after the release of that debut album, guitarist Derrick Dutton joined the band. Dutton came from a blues background and began to alter the band’s live sound from that of a rockin’ little honky-tonk outfit to one that was more of a groove-based soul-infused country rock sound. The band was changing organically as elongated jams replaced 2-steps. While Churchill is an able musician adept at several styles, he much preferred the more traditional country styles and soon decided to depart the band he had founded. His departure forced Kelly to take over sole lead vocal duties and become the only frontperson. It also enabled Dutton’s transcendent guitar playing to grab a tighter hold on the musical direction of the band. He was soon joined by guitarist Josh Roberts as they began to employ an Allman Brothers-esque twin guitar attack with Dutton’s bluesy crunch and slide working side by side with Roberts jam band runs. The band’s rhythm section underwent several line-up changes and they continued to refine their sound and anxiously awaited entering a legitimate studio with a good producer to lay down tracks that truly represented what they now sounded like. After turning several heads in Steamboat, they finally got that chance with Ken Tondre (Kevin Fowler, Cory Morrow, Ryan Turner) at the production helm. The result of this continued uphill climb is the album Placekeeper.

For the first time in their career, MDD is receiving significant radio airplay with the lead-off single “I Remember When”. It’s a rather paint by numbers tune based on the nostalgia of good times remembered. However, what makes it unique is that for the first time in the Texas scene, it is a female singing about the good ‘ol days of pasture parties, evading cops out on backroads and losing your innocence along the way. Paired with “Hearts Be Blind”, “I Remember When” resembles the closest thing to traditional country music on this record. The rest of this collection is a roots rock revelation with flashes of blues and soul sprinkled in occasionally for good measure. Churchill’s songwriting void is filled by Kelly’s ability to expand her lyrical themes from the first album while also taking a direct look within herself for source material.

“Best of Me” might just be the most personal song that any artist in Texas has ever produced. If you don’t know Kelly’s story prior to listening to this song, you will know it all in the 5 minutes the song spins. Yet, aside from Kelly’s growth as a songwriter, it is the aforementioned musical edge created by Dutton and company that really drive this train down the tracks. The title track is a bluesy romp that finds Dutton’s guitarwork interweaving with Roberts to deliver a bouncy treat of flavor. “Love I Couldn’t Hold” screams out of the speakers like vintage Tom Petty sung by a female and backed by a wall of guitars. It is not just full steam rock n’ roll you will find here, they also deliver a moving waltz of the southern roots variety with the Angela Hacker cover “Total Loss”. This song contains perhaps Kelly’s best vocal and Dutton’s most subtle, yet powerful guitar work via two separate solos.

Longtime fans will recognize two tracks, “Small Town Way” and “Angel Dust” from the band’s first album. Yet, don’t dismiss this as the need for filler material. Quite the contrary. These two songs have been completely re-arranged with “Small Town Way” becoming a roadhouse rocker and “Angel Dust” becoming the graceful tune it was always destined to be.

It remains to be seen if Kelly and crew can become the first female-driven act in Texas Music to play with the big boys, but if this record is any indication (release date March 16), they are well on their way.

*In the interest of full disclosure I booked MDD for two years. At Galleywinter, we employ a review by omission policy. If this record hadn’t caught our ear, we wouldn’t review it.

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