Review Summary: Ex-Hot Water Music frontman jams with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on Cold Mountain.
With Against Me!’s debut major label effort New Wave
apparently confirming their oft-suspected intention to out-Pearl Jam Pearl Jam, the folk-punk crossover flag has fallen to half-mast as a saviour is sought. Thrice’s workaholic frontman Dustin Kensrue rose unwittingly to make his bid earlier this year, putting out his debut solo album Please Come Home
in January. While spirited, however, it was an unremarkable effort which skirted the unique styles of Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams without adding a great deal to the mix, lacking the lyrical prowess of the former and the latter’s brutish sincerity.
At the same time, Chuck Ragan, former face of one of modern hardcore’s underappreciated giants Hot Water Music, was putting the finishing touches to Los Feliz
, a live CD which attempted to capture his new, stripped-down folk material in its semi-embryonic form. Feast Or Famine
, the subsequent studio album, features five of Los Feliz
’s twelve tracks (the same five were also released in their underdeveloped form on the singles club collection The Blueprint Sessions
), and seven brand new titles. Like Kensrue’s effort, Feast Or Famine
doesn’t bring an awful lot to the table in the way of originality- the influence of pre-Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan is particularly strong, as well as Celtic/British folk like The Pogues (accordionist James Fearnley guests on ‘California Burritos’) and pre-rock n’ roll blues and country- but the strength of Ragan’s voice, and the personality in lyrics and smart arrangements elevate the album above many of its peer recordings.
The recording style itself is achingly simple. Ragan makes use of minimal instrumentation, supplementing his guitar and vocal base with a range of acoustic and semi-acoustic instruments, including piano, harmonica, lap steel and a variety of muted percussion effects. His debt to Dylan is apparent from the get-go, from the crybaby harmonica of Symmetry’ and ‘For Broken Ears’ to the propulsive vocal delivery of ‘It’s What You Will’ and the ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’-referencing ‘California Burritos.’ His lyrics, too, recall Hibbing’s best. Though he shies away from balladry, his lyrics are thoughtful and self-critical, dealing in a lot of personal pronouns without becoming pontifical. The chorus of ‘California Burritos’ demonstrates the point exactly, as Ragan sings: “I can’t stand feeling nothing/I can’t stand feeling old/I can’t stand standing for nothing when standing up is all I know.”
‘It’s What You Will’ hears him lament: “Mind the world that’s dying/It isn’t yours to kill/Look around, it’s what you will.”
The wide variety of sounds represented on the album is joyful to behold. As exciting a vocalist as he is, Ragan seems keenly aware of his own limitations, and strives to create unique melodic voices in each track to offset his own gravelly vocals, which are an acquired taste. Opening track ‘The Boat’ floats on a beautiful, reverb-soaked lap steel guitar line; ‘The Grove’ and ‘It’s What You Will’ are each built upon atmospheric beats, the former driven by a moody organ melody and the latter by the brute force of Ragan’s stony vocals; ‘California Burritos,’ ‘Geraldine’ and ‘Do You Pray’ are duets with Jolie Holland of the Be Good Tanyas, and her non-intrusive accompaniment serves as the perfect accompaniment to Chuck’s gruff demeanour, giving the tracks an ‘Oh Sister’/Carter Family flavour. Producer Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly, The Bouncing Souls) must be given at least equal credit for the strength and simplicity of the production; the soaring fiddle arrangement of ‘It’s What You Will’ in particular evokes his work on Flogging Molly’s ‘Whistles The Wind.’