Side One Dummy Records
Years spent on the road, clocking up mileage and playing shows in every small town that will have you is a process which naturally produces storytellers. You can’t spend that much time traveling and meet that many people without picking up some tales along with the vocabulary to tell them, which is perhaps why so many punk rock front-men become solo artists with a penchant for the folk troubadour end of the musical spectrum.
This was a particularly obvious step for Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music, whose gravel-throated post-hardcore always flirted with a more traditional Americana type song writing style.
Never having checked out his output beyond Hot Water Music before, I came to what is his fourth studio album unaware of what to expect about two days ago and it has been on steady rotation ever since then. Playing here with a full band, the record opens at full steam with the song which is currently taking the title of album favourite for me; ‘Something May Catch Fire’ is a swaggering piece of country blues with a chorus that can’t fail to have you shouting along and a piercing fiddle which lets you know exactly what you are in for. The lap steel of ‘Vagabond’ matches the song’s lyrics perfectly, leaving a perfectly burnt image in your mind of the unfolding highways which the song evokes.
I imagine the man is getting fairly sick of Springsteen comparisons but there is definitely an element here also visible in Bruce’s recent work, from the roughly impassioned vocals to the melding of folk, country and rock elements to create gloriously anthemic and uplifting songs. And there is definitely a feeling of hope which permeates this record, with almost every track feeling like the perfect soundtrack to a roadside sunrise. ‘Revved’ is another personal favourite so far, an urgently driven song with a slide guitar that really brings home how much Ragan’s voice is made for this kind of music.
‘Bedroll Lullaby’ perfectly brings together a boot-stomping rhythm with a beautifully elegant piece of fiddle playing and I defy anyone not to listen to it without wanting to immediately hit the road. ‘Wake with You’ shows that the band breaking out of ‘barroom hype’ mode to create a fragile love song made all the more real by Ragan’s lived in voice, with lyrics which will have you crying into yer whiskey. ‘You and I Alone’ ups the tempo again and I’m once again struck by how carefully chosen the band must have been, every note and instrument perfectly accompanies Ragan’s vocal changes.
The opening guitar/vocal moments of ‘Whistleblowers Song’ sends shivers down my spine before building into a powerful chorus which again will have crowds shouting every word in a live setting. But where others would close off a record with a song of this magnitude, Ragan goes down the lesser trodden path and has one more song to sing in the form of ‘For All We Care’, an atmospheric, acoustic-driven ballad which adds a finishing touch that you didn’t even know you wanted.
Some records work perfectly as background music, some slot nicely in with certain day to day activities, but this is one of those records which demand undivided attention. If you are already familiar with his work I’m sure you’ll know already and be waiting for this eagerly, but if you have any interest in alt-country music this will be well worth your time.