Joe Swank likes Hank Williams Sr. He also likes Kiss. For the No Depression set, the alt-country+ group for whom Swank could be poster dude, that's not uncommon, really. In fact, had Swank's latest, Hank Williams Died for My Sins, been released 10 years earlier, it would have earned a thumbs-up 200 words in No D, right after the latest by kindred spirit Arthur Dodge and the Horsefeathers.
But what does all that mean in 2009? Title implications aside, the record doesn't aspire to convert, and those who never bought into alt-country still won't give a rat's ass. For those who fled the fold, it's hard to say: Rekindling is a tricky business. But for those who continue to kneel for idols named Ringenberg, Alvin and Escovedo, Hank is 32 minutes of preaching guaranteed to entertain the choir. "Fool for You" has the earnest crackle of Steve Earle or Chris Knight at their jangle-roots best, while "Wait Until I Get My Hands on You" plays like a fond remembrance of The V-Roys. "Just Tell Her I Loved Her" and "Tomorrow's Just a Train-Wreck Away" demonstrate why a never-released album from Swank's previous Mule Skinner Band was titled Cowpunk! And the title track, especially in the lengthier reprised version with harmonies from John Howie Jr. and Mary Huff, has the sweep and confident delivery you'd best demand. An album-capping take on Kiss' "Strutter" even avoids stunt-cover charges by simply offering a strong rockin' country song.
For fringe dwellers, Hank's appeal might well vanish as soon as—to combine a few Swank images—the tavern lights go up in the church of perpetual neon. But Swank has recorded, written, broadcasted and promoted in the indie-roots world for 15 years, so he's sort of beyond concessions. The true-believing crowd, then, will continue to appreciate Hank's high-bottle-count charms beyond the morning after.
Joe Swank & the Zen Pirates—still based in the Triangle, though Swank now lives in Chicago, where he works as a publicist at Bloodshot Records—play two CD-release shows this week: Friday, Nov. 6, at Slim's in Raleigh and Saturday, Nov. 7, at The Cave in Chapel Hill. Both shows start at 10 p.m.