The earliest iteration of Tonk—a Raleigh six-piece that played its first show in 2009—staked out its turf as "anything before the Eagles and Pure Prairie League bent country music over a barrel and had their way with it." The aversion to the Eagles sticks; there's nothing ambitious or bombastic about Tonk's admirably unassuming debut. But there's actually a lot of common ground between the highlights of Let's Keep It Dark and the best moments of Pure Prairie League.
As the outfit's no-nonsense name suggests, this stuff is grounded in a honky-tonk tradition that reaches further back than the country-pop crossover of the early-'70s SoCal scene. The subject matter calls on country classicism: hard drinkin' ("I guess I'm not drinking enough," runs one lyric), sly lyin' ("Once you tell the first lie, you have to tell one more") and playful lovin' ("She likes to love me early and often"). The rhythms tend toward two-steps and shuffles; the melodies depend on Shepherd Lane's antique pedal steel licks and Greg Readling's countrypolitan piano runs.
Tonk's country is consistently pleasing. On the title track, acoustic guitarist and primary singer Jay Brown smartly frames the sad romantic sway of a cheater's pact. "Steer Into the Skid" offers the requisite road-racing relationship metaphor, while "Country Power" (sung by bassist Ben Barwick) beckons to the dance floor. Some tunes can be a bit too twang-by-numbers, however, predictable in their approach to history.
Tonk's music is more memorable when they allow the '70s influence of their youth to seep in. The album's early standout, "Easy To Please (Hard To Satisfy)," feels less concerned with form and just loses itself in the beauty of its AM-radio melody. Brown's singing is easygoing in the verses but stretches skyward in the chorus, getting to the heart of the song without overreaching. Here, his vocals are eerily reminiscent of Pure Prairie League's Craig Fuller, especially on that band's mid-'70s classic Bustin' Out.
"Forbidden Places" grabs an even stronger hold. A strikingly dark opening chord gives way to what seems at first to be straightforward honky-tonk with slurring steel, shuffling rhythm and typical barroom lyrics—"I've got the ace and you've got the deuce." But when the chorus arrives, the mood dramatically shifts to a minor-key revelation. "Your smiling face is teaching me about forbidden places," Brown radiates, with Barwick's harmony mystically floating over the top.
The song's infectious allure transcends expectations of genre, and it hints at what Tonk could become if the band ever became a primary concern for its members. That is, however, unlikely, given that Brown remains the anchor of Tift Merritt's backing band, Barwick is a co-owner of Kings Barcade and Readling is a member of Chatham County Line. Guitarist Lin Peterson is known for his work with No Strings Attached and Old Habits, while Lane and drummer Bo Stevens (of Motocaster and Bandway renown) join Barwick in the kids-music band Mommie. Such activity understandably plants Tonk firmly in side-project territory, even as a handful of tracks here tantalizingly suggest this band is capable of something far greater.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Standing out or settling in."