Under the Table & Above the Sun, Reckless Kelly's fourth album since arriving in Austin in 1996, highlights the band's development from a kinda-warm-and-fuzzy electro-acoustic ensemble to a band with a big electric roots-rock guitar sound and a growing knack for earthy, realistic, commercially viable hooks ("I know you're goin' / I saw it comin'"). Under the Table, with its huge electric twang and muscular drive, makes the Live at Stubb's days of sitting on stools and playing acoustic Zeppelin rave-ups a pleasant but fading memory.
Whether working at the harder edges of their twanging rock sound ("Nobody's Girl") or on literate folk-rock ("Desolation Angels") and mellow strummers reminiscent of early Eagles ("Everybody"), the playing is hot but keep-it-simple solid with an easy Americana radio-friendliness. Their ripping tribute to George Harrison, "Mersey Beat," takes the band into some new territory by pinning guitarist David Abeyta's frantic sitar psychedelia onto an energetic rock groove, while the loping "Wilimina" takes a trippy look at the band's Pacific Northwest roots. In all, the set shows the Austin Music Awards Roots Rock Band of the Year (2001-2) is equally facile with easy-listening lost-love songs or with driving roots-rockers.
The biggest knock on the band has always been that "they sound like Steve Earle." Since Willie Braun's voice has certain natural Earlesque qualities and brother Cody Braun admits the band was heavily influenced in its infancy by Earle's work, this seems like a rather spurious criticism. Rather than fight the Earle knock, in an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em move the band hired Earle's Twang Trust partner Ray Kennedy to produce the album. The result is the band's most polished and carefully constructed album yet. Nashville vet Kennedy is a sure-handed, no-nonsense producer, so it isn't surprising the album became one of the most-added on Americana radio playlists its first week. Under the Table & Above the Sun may well prove that Reckless Kelly not only knows how to pack a Texas bar but that it can ring the cash register on a national level (the Holy Grail for labels signing Texas acts).
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Despite its North Carolina location and its bluegrass image, deals with Terry Allen, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, the Gourds and Bad Livers have earned Sugar Hill Records a reputation for spotting and working with top-quality Texas talent. The label's signing of Reckless Kelly not only provides a stamp of artistic legitimacy for the young Austin hick-rockers, it shows Sugar Hill's scouts still have their good ear to the ground.