Song Machine is Bisbee, Arizona’s beloved band The Exbats’ fifth full-length album and the trio’s second for Memphis’ legendary label Goner Records. Led by the father/daughter duo of Kenny McLain (guitar) and Inez McLain (vocals and drums), the group is completed with the addition of bassist Bobby Carlson who stepped into the position after the band’s former bassist, Matt Rendon, slid into a producer role during the recording of their 2020 studio album, Kicks, Hits, and Fits. Song Machine is the third studio album to be recorded by Rendon after 2021’s Now Where Were We.
The baker’s dozen songs that make up Song Machine are kicked off in fine form with the midtempo “Riding with Paul”. Opening with perky “bah, bah, bah” backing vocals, the song is a sweet slice of retro pop complete with lyrics that mention letterman sweaters and handwritten letters. The song ends with a freewheeling guitar solo that one could imagine being tacked onto any number of 45 singles from the 1960s. “To All The Mothers That I’d Like To Forgive” kicks things up considerably tempo-wise with help from handclaps and tambourines before things get slowed way down for the ballad “Easy to be Sorry”, an acoustic number enhanced with a gentle and emotive string section. “All the rotten things we say, they don’t really go away, and every broken heart, it was cracked before I got there,” Inez sings during the song’s bridge that builds tension before Kenny’s acoustic lead walks us back to the track’s reassuring chorus.
The Exbats channel something akin to what the Shangri-Las may have sounded like if they were produced by Phil Spector with the comical “Himbo”. Here, Inez makes a case for attractive male dumb-dumbs, singing lines like, “I had a muscle man, hurt when he held my hand, I had a fancy lad, only listened to his dad,” before launching into a chorus of how she wants a himbo. The upbeat and glorious “Like It Like I Do” is Song Machine’s best and most memorable song and manages to give each member of the band a moment in the spotlight. Kenny’s mid-song electric guitar solo is perfect, Inez’s drumming and singing is stellar, and Bobby Carlson’s bass work is kept appropriately bouncy and light. The song is not only a standout on the album, but it’s also a standout in The Exbats’ catalog. Song Machine’s first half is concluded with the beautiful “What Can A Song Do”. If “Like It Like I Do” is the band’s time to shine, “What Can A Song Do” is Matt Rendon’s moment in the sun as the production work here is absolutely gorgeous. Inez’s vocals have never sounded stronger as she sings gloriously over Kenny’s 12-string acoustic guitar about the magic of music and the power of song.
Song Machine’s second half begins with the rockabilly “You Got My Heart Hot”. It’s intention as a fun, cute moment is obvious, but it makes for a jarring misstep in the record’s sequence. “Better At Love” and “Cry About Me” help to realign things slightly but it isn’t until the doo wop number “If I Knew”, Song Machine’s penultimate track, that it feels like the album finds its footing again. “The Happy Castaway” is Song Machine’s longest song and the collection’s last. The moment builds nicely, with Inez literally singing goodbye from the perspective of a band member lost at sea at night. The songwriting here is excellent with the chord changes enhancing the track’s emotional tone, the last beats of Inez’s drums are struck as if a heartbeat fading as she repeats the word “goodbye” while the string section fades us out Although the album’s second half is a mixed bag in terms of stylistic tone, this is still a decent Exbats album, and “Like It Like I Do”, “Himbo”, and “What Can A Song Do” are some of the band’s best songs to-date.