The Damn Quails are possibly the most talked about pairing to come out of Oklahoma since the union of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. Singer/songwriters Gabriel Marshall and Bryon White have had a standing gig Monday nights at The Deli in Norman with shows backed by a rotating group of musicians simply referred to as the Quail Philharmonic. The result has been songs never being played quite the same each time.
That experimentation has resulted in possibly the most solid 14 songs of the year in their debut release, Down the Hatch, an album that can’t quite be nailed down to any one particular style. It runs from country-tinged alt. pop to good old fashioned homespun porch jams.
One of the duo’s strengths is the alternating lead vocals. Bryon’s has a smooth beauty, while Gabriel’s has a rougher edge. They are distinct enough that they keep each song fresh and different, but similar enough to complement each other.
Down The Hatch kicks off with “A Better Place to Stop”, a prime example of the Quail Philharmonic experience. With 3 guitar tracks, bass, violin, harmonica, accordion, banjo, and drums you need an 9 piece band to perform it live. The instruments are added a little at at time and before you know it you have a wall of sound. But even with so much going on, it doesn’t feel in the least bit cluttered. In fact it would seem bare without it all.
The second track just might be my song of the year. “Midnight Swagger” is a beautiful piece of jangle pop. Vocals so smooth they melt. It’s one of those songs that when its over your left wanting more, so you play it again. I had to play it 3 times on my first listen before I could bear to move on to the next song and still didn’t think I heard all the layers. I couldn’t wait to get through the rest of the album so I could listen some more. Also, I realized I need better headphones to truly do it justice.
“Another Story” is one of those good old fashioned country jams. Once again Bryon’s vocals are standout. Combined with the violins, they convey perfectly the longing in the main character’s story, which, according to Bryon, was inspired by a little vacation spot he goes to on the lower Illinois River near Gore, Oklahoma, and a girl he used to take there.
“So So Long” is countrified power pop that is reminiscent of Sister Hazel’s last release and is a prime example of Gabriel’s and Bryon’s stellar harmonies. The pop sound is absolutely intentional. Gabriel says he was reading an interview of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and he said something about purposely not writing pop songs. It inspired Gabriel to intentionally write a pop song. And the lyrics proved prophetic in regards to the blonde girl who Gabriel says was sitting next to him painting the Down the Hatch album cover as he wrote it. Oh, and the Hammond organ is a nice touch.
“Iceman” is the most unique sounding track on the album. Its reminiscent of an Eastern European dirge, complete with sad violin. Another of Bryon’s compositions, he was “inspired”, so to speak, by Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a hitman for the mafia and part time serial killer whose wife and kids knew nothing about his double life until his arrest. Bryon says after he wrote it he was creeped out and didn’t sleep for days.
The remainder of the 14 songs are just as strong. Not a weak track in the entire release. The stellar songwriting, incredible vocals, and layered production make this one of the most well rounded albums of the year. Each listen yields subtleties you previously missed. Down The Hatch has definitely earned its place in Essential Listening.