There are some albums that just radiate fun, even when the music and lyrics veer towards melancholy. Take one listen to “Big Umbrella”, a ramshackle ode to love gone wrong on Ronnie Fauss’s new release, and you’ll see what I mean. “There’s beauty in me if you can read between the lines,” he declares as a swaggering electric guitar rings out. It’s the most upbeat song about getting dumped in recent memory.
The romance is just as sour on the infectious “Twenty Two Years.” You’ll be hard-pressed to not crack a smile as Fauss sings “’cause something’s always wrong I know it’s true, it’s the only thing I know about you” while dual guitars and a happy-go-lucky melody propel the song towards a catchy sing-along chorus.
Fauss invited fellow Texas singer Ben Kweller to join him on the rousing “Saginaw Paper Mill.” The song chronicles life in a small mill town, rumbling along with a good-time vibe as the two proclaim, “If I don’t make it to heaven baby, I will be just fine.”
Last of the True is generally filled with sympathetic underdogs who are dealing with the foibles of everyday life. A close listen to the lyrics, however, leads one to believe that, more often than not, the protagonist is the guilty one. The fact that the accompanying music and melodies have a contagious enthusiasm makes them all the more endearing.
Rounding out the album are a handful of impressive covers – from Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid” to Okkervil River’s “The Velocity Of Saul At The Time Of His Conversion”. Of particular note is the melancholy beauty of the closing track, a restrained piano take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).
Long Shot may be Chris Norwood’s debut full-length record but you’d hardly know it. From start to finish, the songwriting is impeccably crafted, filled with thoughtful lyrics that combine wonderfully with beguiling melodies. Songs like “That Damn White Picket Fence” have a folksy charm even as the lyrics have a grayer perspective, with Norwood portraying the fence as a metaphor for “the man I used to be.”
That sober realism permeates the album, whether Norwood is lamenting a lost relationship (“Blue Roses”, “A Good Man”) or the loss of his father (the jaw-dropping “If He Were Standing Here”). His matter-of-fact singing style adds to the authenticity, letting the music and lyrics themselves convey the intended emotions.
Norwood called on some of the finest Texas studio musicians to contribute to his album, not the least of which were album producer Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor Whitmore. They are really the icing on the cake, however, for what is a remarkable showcase for Norwood’s songwriting.
I keep seeing references to Nello as a folk rock singer. One listen to his debut release has me thinking that he hit the studio in part with the intention of giving the finger to anyone who ever described him that way. Out of the Light mostly shuffles with a rock-induced swagger, fueled by electric guitar accompanied by heavy rock piano flourishes.
Opener “Holy Ghost Blues” sets the tone with a determined beat that propels feisty guitars and a smoldering electric piano. “I got two roads in front of me which one will I chose,” he sings as the music leaves little doubt as to the answer. This is blues of the modern variety.
The rock ranges from the insistent drive of “Mama Ain’t It Just Like You” to the freewheeling saunter of “The Jester.” The common thread is a rhythmic foundation on which guitars, both acoustic and electric, and various keyboards are layered. The overall sound is blended beautifully to create a sonic radiance while a closer listen reveals the absorbing instrumental interplay.
The album does have its folk rock moments, especially as it progresses. “Rosie #2” may bury the acoustic guitar in the mix but still floats with the requisite folk airiness while “The Jester” has a freewheeling, harmonica-driven vibe.
I suppose the folk rock references are more reflective of the inspiration that Nello clearly finds in the legends of the classic rock era, from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones. (Live he whips out a brilliantly frenzied version of Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire”.) Those influences shine through in Nello’s music, even as he defines his own musical style.
This is one of those albums that sounds even better once you’ve seen the band live. Which isn’t to say that the album isn’t enjoyable in its own right, it’s just the band’s live show take the songs to an entirely different level.
Live and on record the Texas Gentlemen will transport you back to the rock and soul amalgam that was the hallmark of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the band recorded their studio debut.
The beauty of the Gentlemen is their ability to stretch across genres. “Pain” conjures up an image of the Beatle’s rocking “Get Back” with Billy Preston-esque keys leading the charge while “Pretty Things” sashays with a George Jones charm.
Lead-off track “Hoobie Doobie” is about as nasty a track as you’ll hear this year, and I mean that as a compliment. The years of fat-back grooves captured within the FAME walls oozes out of the song in spectacular fashion.
Reflective of the group’s emerging reputation as the premiere backing band of their era (ask everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Leon Bridges to Nikki Lane), the album features a number of their friends on guest vocals.
TX Jelly is all about the Gentlemen, however, further cementing their reputation as an eclectic and heavenly tour de force of a band.
In concert the Vandoliers describe themselves as punk rockers who discovered country. It’s an apt description for the band’s fiery style. It’s not in the Mike Ness kinda way, but more like Marty Stuart fronting a acoustic-oriented punk band. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Singer-songwriter Joshua Fleming fuels the band with an unbridled intensity. He and the band sling tales of his Texas upbringing with a Springsteen-esque wanderlust and working class desire to succeed. “When I was a younger man, I was wild like a fire,” he sings on the impassioned “Endless Summer,” “they said I was just a kid, born to lose, told to win.”
The band’s secret weapon, certainly live, is fiddler Travis Curry. He bounds the stage with an infectious fervor. But truth be told, it’s an enthusiasm inherent in the entire group and their music.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
One of the nice things about opening the Twangville Dallas office is getting to regularly see Texas-based faves that rarely made it up to Boston. The Roomsounds sit high on that list. Their 2016 album Elm Street was number 10 on my top albums list of that year.
They’re one of those what you see is “what you see is what you get” rock and roll bands, serving up healthy doses of straight up rock and roll. Sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Playlist “title track” brought to you by Willie Nelson.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.