Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
As someone who’s been hobby blogging for around five years now, I can safely say I’ve lost my element of surprise.
What I mean is, that special feeling that occurs when you hear something with no expectations and get absolutely blown away. It used to occur – and still does, especially with last year’s crop of phenomenal debut albums – but new names eventually became familiar ones, and for as much as we try to hide our biases, we all have some degree of excitement or hesitation when approaching a new piece of music.
It’s why 2015 and 2016 were formative years to my musical upbringing – years I discovered more new names than I could possibly keep up with, and ones that challenged my perceptions of what art could really be. I’m thankful for not being so green now, but I do, admittedly, wish I had appreciated that period a bit more.
I also remember taking a chance on the sophomore release from Chicago artist Al Scorch, Circle Round The Signs … and having my mind blown. A genre-defying masterpiece for me, what I lacked then to rightfully describe why I loved it, I’m now hoping to rectify. For starters, the context makes too much sense now – a bluegrass-punk record with tinges of country and jazz to flesh out the sound; it’s as much of a musical melting pot as the city that inspired it, and considering it was also Scorch’s debut for Bloodshot Records, the Chicago influence was all the more welcome.
But I’ve found it’s also an album that sort of describes itself – a fast-paced, frenetic whirlwind of an album defined mainly by Scorch’s banjo playing to set the tempo, but dominated by other elements: fiddle to compliment the melodic presentation and work parallel to the banjo; old-school trumpets and horns to add dominant flavor to the few slower moments on here, of which “Poverty Draft” may be the best example.
And then there’s Scorch himself, whose voice can be an acquired taste – framed mainly through a punk aesthetic, but through bluegrass and country-tinged instrumentation. But you know, even it’s not the traditional framework one would expect, I’ll be damned if the heart and soul isn’t there in the performances: the switchups in tempo on “Insomnia” to suit its waking nightmare; the tensions to the buildups on “Lost At Sea” to throw in some well-earned dramatic stakes for the story; the pure bouncing-off-the-wall energy of “Want One” – it all goes by so quickly, but it makes sure to leave an impact before it’s over.
Four years ago, I would have likely categorized it all as “fun,” but that would only come with ignoring the actual content, which is just as important to discuss as the presentation of it, raucous and spirited as it is. Again, too, the Chicago influence shines in a different fashion – spotlighting broken dreamers and hammering on their fears, anxieties and insecurities as they navigate the world. No, it’s a theme never quite explored as much as I’ve always wanted it to be – one of my few criticisms for the project, along with “Lonesome Low” as a whole, which feels like it drags even when it actually doesn’t – but there’s enough heft to the few stories told to win me over regardless. I love the jumpy tension to “Everybody Out,” forcing characters to run from the cops after their moonshine still is discovered, only for a certain one to refuse to back down without a fight.
It’s not all for show, though; “Poverty Draft” is basically the album’s thesis, where Scorch’s growl evokes an effective anger at the class injustices that force people to enter themselves into dangerous situations just to survive, especially the ones who can’t afford to lose any more than they already have. For as much of a blast as “Insomnia” is, where the literal focus is on a restless night and the paranoia that ensues from fears of possibly not surviving into the next day, I found a much darker subtext when I revisited it. Sure, “Want One” is kind of goofy and somewhat lacking overall, but the same concept applies – taking pills to keep one’s strengths up and suffering the side effects while simply trying to survive. It’s not all dark, mind you; I’ve always loved the wistfulness that emanates from the understated bass groove and bristling percussion of “City Lullaby” – even the lost dreamers have to hold out some hope. But it’s also telling that it ends with “Love After Death,” a quirky, quietly somber tribute to a deceased loved one that ends with a promise to join her soon.
For as much as it feels like Circles Round The Sign left so much more to say, though, it’s a triple-threat of a project that’s, as of this writing, still Scorch’s latest project. Given the natural talent on display and unique approach to the art-making process, I’m hoping for another project someday. After all, this dreamer has to dream, too.