Without a doubt, Fisticuffsmanship is one of the coolest album titles of the year, a fact that would remain even if the record was bad. Fortunately, the album from local Americana foursome Shatterdog is not a dog. Over the course of the album, singer/multi-instrumentalist George Stevens, guitarist Dan Crawford, bassist McGregor Jordan, and drummer Brent Caldwell mix things up, dishing out sweeping harmonies, solid musicianship, and introspective, compelling lyrics.
The first track, "Archery" starts off with a nice harmonica and bleeds into a sweeping melody, but the band's potential doesn't really reveal itself until "Black Leaves," a ballad that builds into an emotional and captivating finish, with Stevens singing, "Even now my secret's safe with you."
The strongest song of the collection is arguably "Thunders of the Morning." On it, there is a great dissonance between the aggressive, low-down lyrics and slowly lilting melody, as Stevens croons, "I will roll you over the coals/I won't even think twice."
While Shatterdog is definitely not an emo band, several songs are extremely personal, which is a good thing. On "Ever Since You Left," Stevens sings about reading sweet love letters from an ex-girlfriend while managing to avoid the tearjerking sap so many bands embrace. The song forces us to remember our own romantic woes with wistful melancholy.
My favorite aspect of the record is that, unlike a lot of releases from up-and-coming Americana bands, Fisticuffsmanship is never choppy. The biggest flaw though is the vocals. Stevens' singing is fine, but the vocals aren't turned up high enough. It's not that the music is overpowering, the recording just wasn't even. Nevertheless, these guys have nowhere to go but up, their heads seem to be in the right place, and most importantly, they are making good music.