Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories suffers from being a bit too bloated overall, but it’s a solid start for Kyle Nix.
There’s no good way to open this review. It’s important to establish context, of course, except for when it overtakes the actual discussion. So here it is – the debut album from Turnpike Troubadours fiddler Kyle Nix, in which – in addition to featuring said band for instrumental duties – there’s a murderer’s row of contributors to an album Nix himself describes as inspired by the Spaghetti Western sounds of Ennio Morricone.
On the other hand, for those resurrecting that discussion surrounding the band … I get it? Aside from that still being a natural question people ask about, it probably didn’t help matters that the title track – the first single from this project – sounded eerily similar to “Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead.” Still, look beyond that context, and what we’re left with is what sounds like an ambitious debut concept album, especially at 17 tracks. Plus, as I said before, the whole point of establishing context is to provide a segue into a discussion of the art at hand.
And on that note, while Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories isn’t quite the full-blown concept album that may have been implied before its release, it’s still an ambitious effort with a lot of heart and character. The issues, however, mostly stem from the vocals and writing, where, when the narrative is a bit looser, it feels a bit bloated at 17 tracks.
On the other hand, a lack of a cohesive story or narrative isn’t the same as there not being an underlying thematic current at all. Happiness is a fleeting concept for most of these characters, mostly because of bad choices they made at a certain point in time. That concept of time is important too in sketching out these characters, mostly in detailing how time has sanded away most of their fighting spirit, prompting them to either take reckless action for one final escape plan, or live miserably knowing now what they should have done before. Hindsight is the biggest benefactor to this album, where an almost-fatal car crash in “Shelby ‘65” leaves this Thelma & Louise-esque duo burying the past and knowing they had a good run, or where a character accepts his downward spiral in the much-darker-than-expected rush of “Little Miss Jones,” because it’s too late to change now anyway.
But, fun as those tracks – as well as the title track – are, the entire point of this album is to move past those wild escapades and find some peace or stability. Not that one necessarily needs to be reckless to make a bad decision, though; sometimes otherwise good people are just caught in bad situations and pushed to their limit, still finding that final escape as the rest of the characters, but in a reverse format – where instead of the downward spiral leading to either death or redemption, the goodness left in these characters either dies out or forces them into their own downward spiral.
And the thing is, there’s no moral judgment cast on these characters for those actions. You end up rooting for the woman standing up to her abuser in “The Wolf At The Door,” just as you feel sympathetic for the character tortured by a love that’s utterly dead on “Woman Of Steel,” forcing him to wallow away and accept that imminent lonesomeness. And then there’s the old man forced to accept his own end is near after watching his wife die on “Lonesome For You,” a much more fitting ending than the odd instrumental closing tracks (one of which is a fine cover of “Old Joe Clark,” but feels out of place in the track list), if only because it shows that, while some of these characters are able to find a temporary escape, they can’t run forever. Eventually they have to think about what they’re left with, and that’s not a pretty picture. It’s dark, but also poetic. Again, I wish it ended stronger, but with the closing instrumental number, it feels like an overarching journey through life itself, where it begins with Nix himself torturing himself over the thought of his own legacy on “Manifesto” and doesn’t really end with any easy answers.
But that also brings me to my first criticism for the project, namely in how, while Nix is good at sketching a scene, he’s not always adept at pushing his stories – letting the subtext do the heavy lifting where the actual text really can’t. Take “Graves,” for instance, which – for the record – is fantastic otherwise, but always feels like it’s about the potential danger this woman could pose for this naive character, rather than actually detailing the dramatic stakes outright. Danger might be imminent; she might seduce him and leave him with nothing, but it’s only ever implied, and without the added details, it’s not quite as hard-hitting as it could be. Granted, one could argue it’s used to frame the overall narrative, but when it’s only a loose one where the tracks aren’t necessarily connected with one another, it makes certain individual moments feel lacking. Take “Blue Eyes,” too, where the character can plainly see this woman who just appeared in his life won’t stay for long, yet we never actually understand why she has to go. It might not matter, but again, it’s the little, further-added details that seem to be missing from some of the stories, where the foundation is solid but the execution is a bit shaky.
I may as well get my other criticism out of the way, too – Nix himself. He’s not a bad singer, but he is nasal and doesn’t always play well to his strengths. On a technical level, he handles the faster flows of tracks like “Little Miss Jones,” “Shelby ‘65,” and the title track quite excellently, and he’s adept at handling the seedier atmosphere of those tracks, too, in addition to “Graves.” But it’s tracks like the slower love ballads of “Sweet Delta Rose,” “Josephine” and “Lonesome For You” where he’s not as effective, if only because they push him to his upper range, which isn’t as strong or convincing.
Perhaps it’s ironic, too, given that the entire point of this album is to move past those wild escapades, but the album is at its best when it captures that wild sense of adventure, which is mostly reflected in the production and instrumentation. To no one’s surprise, there’s plenty of moments to love: the opening burst of fiddle leading into “Manifesto”; the revenge-driven, fast-paced fury of the fiddle pickups and crunchier electric guitar tones of the title track; the groove-heavy stomp of “Graves”; the bluegrass-inspired rickety rollick of “Shelby ‘65”; the swampier, darker presence surrounding “The Wolf At The Door” in the electric guitar lines; and, of course, the instrumental moments, even if I’m not wild about that buzzy effect leading off the “Meet Your Match” prelude. Like with the lyrical content, there’s some moments that just feel a bit too cutesy in their presentation, “If Ruby Ain’t Happy” and “Josephine” being the most glaringly obvious examples.
But as a whole, while I definitely think this album could have been trimmed down to make for a stronger project, it’s an enjoyable first step for Nix. Don’t get in expecting a cohesive story – it carries the “& other short stories” tagline for a reason. The actual story is told through the subtext and, ironically enough, through the sequencing. And while Nix isn’t quite there as a vocalist yet, that’s something that comes with time and experience. So yeah, to answer his own question on “Manifesto,” I guess I like this album some.
(Very strong 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Lightning On The Mountain,” “Graves,” “Shelby ‘65,” “Little Miss Jones,” “Woman Of Steel”
- Least favorite track: “If Ruby Ain’t Happy”