Duality has long been a theme for Raleigh's Jack the Radio. The band has spent, for instance, the past decade balancing and blending the lead vocals and songwriting contributions of college pals George Hage and A.C. Hill. On Badlands, its latest LP, the quintet creates a distinct two-part affair, right down to the vinyl sticker's artwork, which employs a space cowboy on one side and a gunslinger on the other. It's meant to delineate side one's expansive sonic palette from the more familiar roots rock of side two.
The first half's boundary pushing recalls Kings of Leon, another act that stretched a rather strict Southern sound with ambition on its third studio LP. But Jack the Radio manages to make the transition between styles and into songs ready for big spaces seem more natural. After a horn intro that conjures a spaghetti western showdown, "Bad Man" uses organ and keyboard to cast moody textures across dark verses and triumphant explosions of a memorable chant. With guitar fuzz, thick Moog funk and soulful background vocals that swirl into a psyched-out crawl, "Ain't So Bad" could be a lost track from any of The Black Keys' last three records.
On side two, Jack the Radio immediately reintroduces its melodic Southern anthems. The swamp-pop stomp of "My Way" kicks off with bluesy slide guitar and a gospel-like choir that includes Delta Rae's Elizabeth Hopkins. Punctuated by blasts from swinging horns, "City Slippin" crosses a rollicking bar band with straight Memphis soul. Hage's guitar solos add immediacy to the deliberate in-studio sound.
Serving as a dead-ringer for Sheryl Crow, Hopkins returns to duet with Hage on the lost-love ballad "Criminals," while American Aquarium's BJ Barham gets a vocal turn on the road-weary "Wayfared Warriors." He adds a gritty quiver to Hill's syrupy smoothness and Hage's husky baritone. "Hills" closes Badlands by reconciling the band's two sides, climaxing in a distorted storm of unlikely twang.
Sure, with a clunky lyric here or an uninspired instrumental passage there, the 12-song Badlands isn't perfect. "Wayfared Warriors" repurposes a cheesy pickup line in its first verse, while the coda of "The Runaway" slogs through riff repetition. But don't ignore the forest for the trees: Badlands is one of the finest big-time rock records to come from the area in recent years, an effort that seems poised for attention far beyond the band's previous local focus.