Quick Draw Album Reviews: A Cold Comfort By The Levee With Starlight

The short version: In the fifth edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I discuss the latest projects from Logan Ledger, Ruthie Collins, Van Darien and Caleb Caudle.

Logan Ledger, Logan Ledger

  • Favorite tracks: “Starlight,” “Electric Fantasy,” “Nobody Knows,” “I Don’t Dream Anymore,” “(I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day”
  • Least favorite track: “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Ruthie Collins, Cold Comfort

  • Favorite tracks: “Wish You Were Here,” “You Can’t Remember,” “Beg Steal Borrow,” “Untold,” “Cheater”
  • Least favorite track: “Hey Little Girl”
  • Rating: 7/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Van Darien, Levee

  • Favorite tracks: “Cardboard Boxes,” “Gone,” “Levee,” “The Sparrow & The Sea”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Twisted Metal,” “Low Road”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Caleb Caudle, Better Hurry Up

  • Favorite tracks: “Monte Carlo,” “Front Porch,” “Feelin’ Free”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Dirty Curtain,” “Reach Down”
  • Rating: 5/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The full version:

Logan Ledger, Logan Ledger

Well, it’s about time.

A potentially confusing statement, given the current climate of the world, which makes this album’s roll out all the more infuriating. For context: Logan Ledger is a Rounder Records signee who drew early comparisons to Dwight Yoakam and George Jones with the release of a few scattered singles. And with T Bone Burnett handling production for his debut album, there was plenty of reason to be excited for it … in March of 2019. That’s right – it was announced over a year ago, had a set release for October of that year (which, again, was very weird for a March announcement), and even then, that album turned into an EP, with some of the better tracks not even making their way over to Ledger’s debut album. The good news is that we finally had another set release date for April … and then COVID-19 completely paralyzed the world.

I’m not sure where to assign blame, but it’s not the way to break out a promising talent, even without discussing the pandemic. Whatever, though, it’s here, and as long as it’s good, the cream eventually always rises to the top anyway, right?

That, I can’t answer without putting on rose-colored glasses, but I can say Ledger’s debut album was worth the wait. It’s a niche listen, for sure, what with the retro styling and fusion of ‘60s country and folk-rock, but it’s also a great fit for Ledger’s voice. With his clear, booming tone and knack for nailing the more dramatic moments, he’s reminiscent more of Marty Robbins than he is the aforementioned Jones or Yoakam, and if you’re looking for a modern contemporary, this isn’t far removed from Orville Peck’s wheelhouse. The difference with Ledger is a greater sense of dynamics; he’s just as keen on cutting loose on “Starlight” as he is playing things more straightforward on the country-inspired tracks.

Plus, given that this is basically the backing band that played on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand album, it’s not surprising that the instrumentation is as sharp as it is. “Starlight” may run long, but when it nails the groove from start to finish it’s definitely a highlight. And the change-up between the verses and the surf-rock explosion on the chorus of “Electric Fantasy” is integrated far better than otherwise expected, which really goes to show how the best moments here come when the guitars are a bit more rollicking and free to cut loose.

When it comes to the actual writing, though, it’s an album that’s very much aware of the era it’s pulling from, which also means it’s obvious when some tracks are built around the melody or groove over those deeper lyrical details. Again, too, with Ledger’s voice, it’s not surprising to hear him tilt into more dramatic performances when the mood calls for it. He’s very much effective in his lower range to conjure the tortured loneliness he feels on “Nobody Knows,” and when it comes time to deliver a classic country weeper, “Tell Me A Lie” is pretty brutal, if only for one line in particular.

But it also means there’s moments that, while not bad, are intentionally punching lower than they could. There’s a pretty nice rollicking groove to “(I’m Gonna Get Over This) Some Day” reminiscent of an old Johnny Cash tune, but it’s essentially him just brushing off a dead relationship by simply stating he’ll get over it … you know, somehow. And when it’s not playing things simple, the writing is reinforcing Ledger’s delivery, which can make for a sharp, paranoia-induced nightmare like “I Don’t Dream Anymore” but also means that certain tracks like “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” and “Invisible Blue” come across as a bit kitschy; it’s an overreliance on drama, really, and the sleepy former track definitely isn’t the best way to introduce this project.

It also ends with two of its sleepier cuts – “The Lights Of San Francisco,” which adopts a cool perspective of tourists visiting Alcatraz who are haunted by ghosts past, yet still feels like it’s being played a shade too low-key to really connect, and “Imagining Raindrops,” which, considering sadness is the dominant theme of this album, doesn’t stand up to the album’s best cuts. Still, it’s an overall lush, vibrant listen that certainly makes listeners take notice of Ledger, so while this really should have arrived sooner, I’m interested in hearing more. (Strong 7/10)

Ruthie Collins, Cold Comfort

If you’ve been following mainstream country music trends for the past, say, five to 10 years, you may remember Ruthie Collins, who remade Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” into a country-EDM dance fusion for her debut single. In hindsight, I suppose it was understandable, given that Sam Hunt had just entered the fold, but it just didn’t work; the bluegrass instrumentation didn’t blend well with the synthetic elements, and trying to integrate Williams himself into the track was bold, but not brilliant. Now, it never took off, and the “why” of that leads to some interesting theories: for one, it wasn’t a smart choice for a debut single and never ignited that fusion as a trend in the mainstream; Collins was a woman who emerged at the point where bro-country was at its peak and arguably most sexist; and Curb Records couldn’t support an artist not named Lee Brice these days even if they came attached with helium-filled balloons.

After that, though … nothing, at least until she finally released her debut album in 2017, which was a step in the right direction, but still felt too overly polished to be all that memorable. Her latest album Cold Comfort, however, is not only a step in the right direction for Collins – it’s the first time she’s really stuck a consistent enough landing to live up to that potential.

The biggest change is a shift toward more atmospheric country tones that have been popular in independent country in recent years (think Michaela Anne or Mike and the Moonpies), and it’s honestly a better fit for Collins’ voice. She’s not the most powerful or distinctive singer, but she’s got a wide emotive range that lets her gentle cadence play off these tones well. Couple that, too, with some absolutely gorgeous melodies, and there’s some fantastic performances here in “Untold” and “Beg Steal Borrow.” The instrumental palette is warm and organic, and the basslines give an added sense of groove and, well, “comfort” to this material. I do wish there was some more added variety every now and then, given that the album shifts between low-key acoustic songs and piano ballads with added orchestral flourishes, and that there was some variety in tempo to boot, however; it’s a draining listen after some time.

When discussing the writing, too, it’s another improvement for Collins, who’s often taking simple themes of breakups and endings and framing them with emotionally complex details to hit harder. Take “Cheater,” for example, where she feels guilty for moving on with her life after sharing that complex history with someone else; it’s a small detail and turnaround of the hook that has a surprising amount of weight to it. I would say, however, that those moments come more toward the back half of the project. Where Collins isn’t as effective is when she’s coasting on an overreliance of her vocal performance or the production to do the heavy lifting; she tries to come across with more bite on tracks like “Hey Little Girl” and “Bad Woman,” but the lusher production isn’t doing her any favors on the latter track, and there’s not much to the actual story of “Hey Little Girl” other than a repetitive, semi-annoying hook.

But considering she’s willing to show both perspectives in an ugly relationship, it does give the album an underlying sense of empathy and maturity. She can plainly see her lover hasn’t moved on from an old flame in “Wish You Were Here” and yet her general tone is understanding over anger; she’s been there and understands, even though it’s tough to admit the truth of what it means. Or take “You Can’t Remember,” where’s she actively watching her lover spiral from alcoholism, all while his friends enable it while she’s left to watch the uglier side of it. And yet when all that’s left to do is walk away hoping he’ll come to his senses, there’s a tense moral ambiguity to the entire situation, ending on a bitter, yet understandable note, especially for anyone who’s been in that situation. And when it comes time for her to ask for mercy on “Beg Steal Borrow,” she’s aware she doesn’t deserve that second chance, but after so many tracks painting both sides of the relationship, it hits harder in that context. Again, I wouldn’t quite call it a consistently great listen – “Untold” aside, the middle portion is fairly weak – but it ends incredibly strong, so, yeah – pretty good overall, but I’d like to hear it get better, too. (Decent 7/10)

Van Darien – Levee

Up next, the debut album from Van Darien, a Texas native influenced by everything from Guy Clark to the War On Drugs. And with her debut album, Levee, that general mix of atmospheric production and sweeping instrumentation can certainly be heard. Like Ruthie Collins above, it’s an album playing to huge, sweeping, lush melodies and performances – a shift away from the scuzzier tendencies of her debut EP, Silent Sparrow. Unlike Collins, though, this album is playing to much darker, minor territory; a welcome fit for Darien’s huskier delivery. And for the most part, she’s a great singer who’s incredibly effective in her lower range, though I’m not always wild about the abuse of vocal production on tracks like “Twisted Metal.”

On that note, the album also features a heavier reliance on reverb to craft its darker atmosphere, and the pedal steel is opting for a more haunting mood than anything else. Sometimes it works really well, like the sweeping melody and groove of “Gone” that nails its hazier tendencies or “The Sparrow & The Sea” with the darker smolder added to the banjo and guitar. But it’s also slightly inconsistent; “Twisted Metal” aims to be sharper with its thumping drums and callbacks to Darien’s earlier sound, but it’s also a moment where everything feels overcooked (though for a fun fact, it and “Low Road” were co-written with Maren Morris). And the spikier keys added to “Low Road” make that song feel much choppier than the earlier version included on Silent Sparrow.

As for the writing, there’s a lot of heart to the sentiments of nostalgia and wistfulness; even for a debut album, it’s understandable when bright-eyed artists find themselves homesick chasing that dream. But I’m also not sure the deeper details ever really fluctuate. Take “American Steel,” for example, where the first verse was written by Darien’s father and is largely reflective of his time as a mechanic and welder … though without reading the background to that track, it’s a track largely reliant on subtext to carry its sentiment that the actual text never fully supports; there’s a lot of great ideas, in other words, that don’t paint a full enough picture to stick in the mind. And that’s a criticism I’d levy at tracks like “Twisted Metal” – a track that tries to spin a toxic relationship as healthy when both parties are equally bad for each other, though all it really does is beg the question of why they’re together anyway – and “Low Road” – which aims for seedier territory without any real justification for it.

However, I do think the album begins and ends with some of its better tracks; there’s an aimless restlessness that fits the lonesome drifter mentality of the album’s thematic arc that I like about “Gone” and “Ponderosa.” And it’s balanced out with the consequences of choosing to chase that musical dream, like having to say goodbye to parts of her past in “Cardboard Boxes” that shows the hard part of growing up and moving on. And though I don’t think it’s a particularly consistent listen, there is real potential here. (Strong 6/10)

Caleb Caudle, Better Hurry Up

Before the pandemic, if you had asked me what my most anticipated album of the year was … well, depending on the day I may have had a different answer, but one answer that never changed was Caleb Caudle’s latest project. Crushed Coins is my favorite album of 2018 for a plethora of reasons: Caudle’s blend of Americana and atmospheric-country was sharper than ever, he was in top form, vocally, and the writing took on a brutal concept of following a relationship from its start until its end (“end” as in death, too). In short, it was a near-classic for me, personally, and Better Hurry Up was shaping up to be just as good. Not only did Caudle plan an entire trip to Johnny Cash’s Cash Cabin recording facility outside of Nashville to make it, he brought plenty of excellent guests on board, including John Paul White, Elizabeth Cook and Courtney Marie Andrews (among others).

And for as much as I’d love to say the actual album lives up its hype, I can’t. While I appreciate Caudle shifting his sound in a different direction for this project, it’s ultimately not a good fit for him: the production is flat and colorless compared to earlier works and the writing isn’t nearly as sharp as his usual poetry.

The shift from Jon Ashley to John Jackson for production is noticeable, too; a shift away from the more lush, atmospheric tones of his earlier work in favor of something more akin to blues and roots-rock. Fundamentally, it’s a sound that should work with Caudle’s huskier drawl, but he’s always had a relaxed presence behind the microphone, and for songs that require a more immediate swagger, he’s just not a good fit for the style. He’s often pushed to his lower range, which isn’t as effective or direct, either, especially when his actual flow is always one step behind everything.

Given the all-star backing team supporting this album, too, I’m not sure if it’s a result of everything feeling too thin in the low end of the mix or the lo-fi asthetic, but the grooves feel more underweight than they should be for the style. Sure, there’s some meaty smolder to “Monte Carlo” that’s welcome, but it’s an isolated moment rather than the general tone for this album. And “Front Porch” is a welcome deviation into classic country, but it’s balanced by “Bigger Oceans,” where the general tone is the sleepy adult-contemporary production that was popular for country in the ‘80s.

The real disappointment, though, comes through in the writing. On one hand, it’s refreshing to hear Caudle move on from the brutally somber outlooks of recent projects; one can’t expect that forever, of course. And I do appreciate his desire to be bigger and bolder with his messages, but not when they’re only half-formed and lacking any real depth. The basic concept is laid out in the opening title track, where the mention of time as a fleeting essence, while not a distinct thematic arc, can at least have some real grit behind it when done right. Sadly, that’s not what we get, leading to an album that’s oddly preachy and, at times, a bit judgmental. “Dirty Curtain” is obviously pointing its finger at some establishment, though without the specificity it just comes across as overblown. And though Caudle will include himself in his message to make the most of the time that’s left, there’s never any real lessons learned from any of it; he’ll beat himself up for the entirety of “Regular Riot,” but the deeper point gets lost in the list-like content.

And it goes from bad to worse when the content takes on an oddly arrogant tone. I don’t doubt this album is his journey to continuously be a better person and that he himself is who he’s speaking to, but it’s hard to take that seriously when he’s framing it through such a sour, preachy perspective on “Reach Down” or patting himself on the back for finding his own truth on “Let’s Get.” He acknowledges he can’t dictate anyone’s journey to redemption on “Wait A Minute,” but even then, the savior complex doesn’t come across well. As for highlights, there is something cathartic to the “burn it down” spirit of “Monte Carlo,” and “Front Porch” is probably one of the few moments here that digs deeper with its story and acknowledges that it’s OK to take that precious time to reflect on a long-gone moment (without memories, what’s left?), but it’s a disappointing project from a talent artist otherwise. (Decent 5/10)

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