The debut album by alt-country duo the Damn Quails has a looseness that once recognized can rarely be duplicated. A number of the 14 songs were written quickly, with fresh nerve and emotion. Bryon White and Gabriel Marshall are talented songwriters capable of pairing sharp lyrics with irresistible melodies.

They're story tellers. White's 'Fools Gold' about being arrested in Kansas is a humorous highlight from 'Down the Hatch.' One song later, Marshall delivers a kick to the gut with 'Parachute,' a song about realizing a long-term relationship is ending. Then, two songs down the line 'Mary' has us again bending over with heartache, but that's OK. We're country music fans -- we love to cry.

Despite the heavy inspiration, 'Down the Hatch' doesn't come across as a melancholy record when listened to in its entirety. For the most part, the tempos range from slow to slower, but there is some spirit of optimism that leaks through acoustic guitar, harmonica and fiddle. Perhaps by listening to these men's tales of loss and "living in a world that doesn't appreciate love as it should" (Marshall's notes from 'Down'), we feel better about ourselves.

Or perhaps it's just difficult to not smile when you hear a good song, no matter what it's about. The album closes with 'Dollars,' White's song about four winter days spent soaking up advice from his grandfather, who lives along the Mexican border. It's an appropriate final cut, because that's what the project feels like -- time spent listening to a sagacious old-timer telling really, really good stories. Clearly White and Marshall are younger than your neighborhood barkeep, but they seem well-qualified to fill in when you need advice.

4 Stars

Listen to the Damn Quails, 'Better Place to Stop'

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