(41 points, two first-place votes; see the complete list)
When the first Ramones album came out in the mid-1970s, one reviewer likened it to a “licorice pop-tart,” a sweet pastry, albeit one with a bitter edge. Although Tenderhooks sound nothing like Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy, that oddball analogy is an apt description of the Knoxville foursome.
Formed by childhood friends Jake Winstrom and Ben Oyler (and featuring the crack rhythm tag team of Emily Robinson and Matt Honkonen), the ’hooks’ music is highlighted by the sugary vocal harmonies of Winstrom and Robinson, which soar atop a bed of folky rock ’n’ roll, accented by Oyler’s Terry Hill-schooled fretwork and Honkonen’s muscular-yet-musical skin-pounding.
Trying to pigeonhole Tenderhooks is a pointless endeavor. Unlike most of their twentysomething contemporaries, Winstrom, Oyler, Robinson and Honkonen aren’t making youthful alternative music of the moment (or painful retreads of music that was made before they were born), but rather classic, timeless songs that belie their tender ages. Like the best bands, they are a product of their influences (which range from Pere Ubu to Emmylou Harris), yet sound like none of them. Their third and latest release, New Ways to Butcher English, is an artistic triumph, and a major step forward for the band, who tracked the songs live in a couple of New York studios. Their playing is sharp, and the songs’ vignettes feature a believable cast of characters, including the frustrated artist/fast food servant of “Customer Service” or the corrupt small-town sheriff of “Local Boys Done Good Don’t Go to Jail.” This time around, Winstrom’s winsome vocals are raspier, Oyler’s improvisations are more fluid, Robinson’s bass playing is as solid and melodic as ever, and Honkonen, who makes his recorded debut as a ’hook, positively shines.
With a coupla industry hotshots in their corner, Tenderhooks are poised to be the next big band to come from Knoxville. Don’t bet against ’em.