After spending the last two years honing their craft, the Milwaukee-based quintet The MilBillies don’t disappoint with their self-titled debut effort (out Nov. 6, 2020) that straddles the line between the traditional and progressive schools of bluegrass along with hints of blues, punk and country.
Comprised of Matt Brey (mandolin), Eben Flood (guitar), Dan Shaw (banjo), Joe Wais (fiddle) and Pat Zimmer (bass) at its core, The MilBillies ascended on their hometown Silver City Studios to work with engineer Chuck Zink on the project. In the studio, they opt to reproducing their raucous live sound, which they accomplished with resounding effect.
The entire 12-song album features the band’s original songwriting, most of which revolve around booze, women, and Milwaukee night life. These themes are summed up in the high-speed and angsty honky tonk thriller “High Class Low Life” about a man constantly living in the moment, for better and worse. The track is one of four on the album with special guest Justin Busche (resonator guitar). Busche also performs on the haunting “Hard Living” about a man drinking away his sorrows, “Cream City Woman” centered around the lure of a Milwaukee woman that includes an epic back-and-forth breakdown between guitar and fiddle, and the bluesy ballad “Bartender,” which places the listener behind a busy bar staring at a sea of wide, glazed-over eyes and clenched fists waving dollar bills.
Other standouts on the album include “Hoods,” a song documenting the struggles of finding love in three different Milwaukee neighborhoods, a happy-go-lucky banjo tune “Good Land,” and “Country Lane,” a fiddle heavy song featuring several train and railroad track mentions during its brief 1:06 length.
The tracks best exemplifying the band’s high-strung, hard-driving live antics are the album opening “Ol’ Fred” about the closing of Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewery, bourbon boasting “Wild Turkey” and the album-closing ditty “Cat Got Out.”