Far from a sophomore slump, Black Cats and Crows is one of the best country albums of the year.
It’s debatable whether the “outlaw” in country music refers to an image, sound, or philosophy … or a little bit of everything.
Now, I’d argue for the philosophical meaning – that, being a commitment to restructure traditional Nashville rules and bend them to your own liking, all while making the music you want along the way, too. An band of extroverted introverts, if you will.
Still, there’s arguments to be made for the other two entities. Image, more so in a specific historical sense, as artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash (among others) worked off the growing counterculture of the time to reshape the literal and spiritual “look” of a country music singer – though some modern day incarnations get too hung up on the literal aspect of that image. As for sound, there’s a noticeable interplay between the ‘70s-inspired usage of reverb, heavier backbeat heavier bass to create a warmer, low-key, yet still driving sound that defined a lot of that era. Chris Stapleton’s “When I’m With You” is a good recent example.
Yet it’s the contemplative nature of that sound and those themes, the willingness to be different and willingness to succeed on your own terms that makes it hard to decipher which element is most important. Granted, one could argue this is a moot point, especially when anyone who typically meets the criteria likely doesn’t want to be called an outlaw anyway. And those that do want that label attachment typically aren’t anything close to edgy or different.
In spirit, it’s a moniker that doesn’t really fit working artists in Nashville today, at least not to the fullest extent of that statement. And when modern independent artists have plenty of other roads they can take to success without Nashville or country radio, that same willingness to restructure the industry isn’t quite there. In a sense, then, working from the outside in is a fine solution, even if the results aren’t quite the same, and even if the artists couldn’t care less about that anyway.
Now, in terms of modern day collectives, I hesitate to call any artist as “appropriate” for that label, given how that typically delves into unneeded conversations over who’s “saving” the genre, and especially when one could make an argument for just about any artist. Still, I’ve had fun watching the collective of artists like Cody Jinks, Tennessee Jet and Ward Davis interact with one another, swapping and writing songs and taking their own approach to crafting a noticeably harder country sound, even if it’s a bit too on-the-nose in conjuring that older movement at times.
Yet with Davis, there’s very little to go on. He’s known for his piano-based approach to composition and structure … only there’s very little to show for it, outside of a bare-bones project in 2015’s 15 Years in a 10 Year Town and a very short EP in 2018’s Asunder, which showcased that sound much better. He’s got songwriting contribution credits for acts as big as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, but a bitter divorce sidelined a long-awaited sophomore project, released now at the tail end of the year.
Here’s why I’d argue “outlaw” is more of a philosophy that’s lived on after a specific movement, rather than a simple attachment – not only is Ward Davis’ Black Cats and Crows an absolutely great listen that’s deserving of all the praise received so far, it takes an unconventional approach in structure and is all the more striking and unique because of it. It’s an album that expands off the promise of Asunder and delivers on nearly all counts, and if there was a time to get on board with Davis, it’s now.
Now, before diving into the obvious discussion point of the sound and lyrical content, it’s worth noting how much of an asset Davis himself is to this project. The Travis Tritt comparison is damn-near inescapable, and he’s got the range and pure soul to opt for bigger, more bombastic moments here. And yet, outside of a few moments in “Sounds of Chains” and the title track, I’m glad he underplays most of these sentiments. This is contemplative material tangling with the deeper workings of one’s psyche as they try to recapture a part of themselves, so there’s an effectiveness in the subtlety, especially on the absolutely beautiful “Threads” and the more reflective cuts in “Heaven Had A Hand” and “Where I Learned to Live.” But there’s something to be said for how much emotive power he’s bringing out of the title track, too, or how excellently he rides off the huge swell on the hook of “Book of Matches.” There’s a great command of tone here that always feels right for the chosen material, and that’s important for an album like this.
As for one of the more obvious discussion points, though, if you want a full expansion of what Davis is able to do with his sound, it’s here. Granted, this album is ballad-heavy and does lose a bit of steam with the longer runtime, not helped by the choices to break up the mood – more on that later – but I think what’s most noticeable about this album is the approach, rather than the sound itself. Sure, there’s a minor smolder to the title track echoed in the darker piano and pedal steel supported by the meatier electric guitar in the low-end, and “Threads” flips the script to echo a delicacy against the fiddle that just sounds excellently weary. But there’s no piano on “Sound of Chains,” and the heavy lifting is mostly handled by Davis himself as well as the backing choir and striking guitar and dobro for something much heavier and louder without being overbearing. There’s a soul to this project that comes alive nearly everywhere.
In general, too, the production always ensures there’s a richness to the instrumental balance that gives a warmer immediacy to the more contemplative tracks. Simple, for sure, but the kind that’s subtly great in every area and mostly speaks for itself, especially on the burned-out happiness permeating throughout “Colorado,” the cathartic coping mechanism brought on by “Book of Matches,” or the swaying acoustics of “Nobody” that speaks more to the unease he feels in simultaneously letting go and moving on.
Of course, that’s more of a note on the content, where the divorce concept is of a looser variety, but is reflected excellently in the sequencing. Granted, a lack of detail in the title track is what initially held me back from loving it, but in the context of those earliest nights, where the pain is too real and there’s a certain nihilistic approach in how to approach tomorrow, it cuts phenomenally well. And to go back to “Threads” one more time, too, when factoring in the realness that colors the concept, there’s an authenticity captured in the burnout that cuts on the same level as, say, Jason Eady at his finest, and that’s saying something when Davis has the gusto in his vocal tone to add further weight to that sentiment. Granted, the murder-heavy “Sound of Chains” is a bit of a grim tune that would only work well at the beginning – and even that’s debatable – but on pure adrenaline rush alone, it’s an awesome break from the arc while still relating to it in its own seedy fashion.
Still, there needs to be a progression beyond that initial anger, and while “Colorado” is an older Cody Jinks tune that wasn’t written specifically for this album, that even-keeled reflection on a past relationship – where the regret is there, but the happier memories triumph anyway – is a real turning point for the project’s sense of maturity. There’s still that bitterness present, mind you, but there’s work done in silencing those demons on “Book of Matches” that, next to “Threads” is another excellent highlight.
But even if one can silence a demon, they can’t kill it, so to jump ahead to the closer, “Good and Drunk,” where our narrator thought he had it all together until that true ending actually came, it ends the album on a darker, more realistic note than I expected. And it’s the inner workings of tracks like and “Nobody” – both of which deal with the toll these ordeals have on mental health as this character works to put on a brave face for everyone – that touches on the more personal, emotionally complex side of country music, especially in the outlaw scene, that’s always been an underrepresented highlight. And it’s on “Good to Say Goodbye,” which is like a calm before the storm of “Good and Drunk,” that he acknowledges how he’s sure he’s moved on and put that past behind him, and that love, in fact, is what saved him from his first downward spiral. It’s why I appreciate the Alabama cover of “Lady Down On Love,” if only because it’s the one moment to imagine the divorce from the ex-wife’s perspective, and the choice, I think, ultimately comes across as better than if Davis himself had tried to pen the same isolated moment.
And I think “Good to Say Goodbye” reflects the other arc, too – not just moving on from a past love, but reconnecting with a part of yourself long thought gone, and trying to find the best parts of it. It’s why “Heaven Had Hand” – which I’d typically scan as a tad too mawkish – comes across well in that context, acknowledging how there’s good to be found in even the darkest situations to push on through to tomorrow, and ultimately finds Davis thankful for that chance at love to grow. And I’m not surprised “Where I Learned to Live” comes right after, a simple reflection on how our innocence shapes us more than we realize until much later in life, and on pure, simple acoustics alone, it’s a lovely track.
But to reiterate a past criticism, an album this heavy needs a few moments of levity and/or tracks that add some further momentum, and while there are a few here, I’d argue they’re not the best choices. “Get to Work Whiskey” is fine, if a bit paint-by-the-numbers for a drinking song, especially when the personification of the drink in hand isn’t that clever. And while I like the amped-up fury cementing “Sounds of Chains,” when it appears the second time around on “Papa Loved Mama” as a swampy, blues-inspired growl, it creates more of a tonal whiplash than anything. Not to mention that it doesn’t fit the overall theme all that well and is mostly just a cover that feels out of place.
In terms of sheer scope and magnitude, though, Black Cats and Crows is a fantastic late entry and easily among the best country music albums of this year – and even in this weird year, it’s been surprisingly strong on that front. More than that, though, it’s the sound of an artist fully realizing his sound and working to support it in nearly every area, and while it may have taken a long time to get there, it was so worth it.
- Favorite tracks: “Book of Matches,” “Threads,” “Black Cats and Crows,” “Good and Drunk,” “Good to Say Goodbye”
- Least favorite track: “Get to Work Whiskey”