There's a moment during Live at Amplified Art—the accompanying short DVD that captures eight cuts from Jack the Radio's new live album, Devil in Here—that manifests the band's central impediment. Leading into "Truck Stop Man," a fierce blues stomp and the record's most compelling song, guitarist George Hage introduces Autumn Brand. She'll be playing violin, he tells the crowd, and she does just that, backing the song with dispassionate clarity. There's no mess or fire, just the accuracy of roots music delivered by way of chamber orchestra. If only they'd recruited an honest-to-goodness fiddler, maybe you could feel the notes, not just hear them.
Devil in Here finds Jack the Radio playing their Southern soul rock with mostly acoustic instruments in the gallery Amplified Art, backed by a trio of polished strings. The new digs only highlight an issue that normally hides behind striding electric riffs and crisp country hooks: Jack the Radio sometimes lose the emotions in their rehearsed executions.
Take "Devil," essentially the album's title track. As with every song here, the music and production sparkle. A mandolin shuffles jovially as bass booms brightly beneath sprawling dobro. The tone is light, even winsome, but the words are not. "I feel too old to be brave," A.C. Hill laments. "There's a devil in here, and it's reeling me in." His airy warble communicates weakness without a whiff of desperation. As with the violin that should have been a fiddle, the singing is proficient and serviceable, but it does little to make you believe in his supposed demons.
Thing is, when you're watching Jack the Radio on Live at Amplified Art, you can plainly see the passion they have for these songs. And you can detect it in their attention to musical detail; you don't create rich arrangements like these without believing intensely in your own messages. But for all their artistry, Jack the Radio often come off cold, like they fussed over these songs so long that they forgot how to feel them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hot and soft."