Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
This edition features thoughts on new albums that have been sitting in my backlog, meaning I’m only a little less behind schedule now. Huzzah! Anyway, onward.
Bobby Dove, Hopeless Romantic
This is one of those projects I wanted to check out based solely on the critical buzz it was receiving, so if you haven’t already, meet Bobby Dove. They’re a Canadian talent who released a solid debut with 2016’s Thunderchild, which, after listening to it now, I enjoyed for its slightly darker, rougher textures matched against Dove’s huskier delivery. Unlike that album, though, which owed to country, rock, and Americana, new album Hopeless Romantic is more of a direct love letter to Dove’s classic country influences. Now, I admit I did miss the moodier, somewhat sinister touches of that debut that don’t quite fluctuate here, and when it comes to pure throwback efforts, I’m a noted tough sell. But when the intent is made clear and the melodies, hooks, and performances are solid across the board, it makes for a solid, fresh take on yesterday’s sound. But if there’s a reason to stick around beyond an agreeable sound, it’s Dove’s writing, where the main thematic arc is a little lonelier as it explores unrequited love, starting with the title track. And what I like about the framing here is the urgency and honesty behind it, namely in Dove’s admittance that they love too fast and too hard, making partners feel a little skittish in their commitments and Dove to be left alone feeling used and questioning what happened and why it did. But they want to keep trying anyway, and having that arc explored is what gives this album its potency, from the frustration that comes through on “Gas Station Blues,” the wallowing loneliness permeating “My World’s Getting Smaller,” and knowing a relationship won’t last beyond the one night because of that past on “Haunted Hotel.” Or take “Early Morning Funeral,” which, while not told from Dove’s experience, is on-the-nose in framing a rock musician hungover at a funeral who knows they’ll likely be headed to their own sooner than expected. And with the musical connection in the framing of the more personal tracks, the bigger question asked is, is living your life like a country song really all it’s cracked up to be? In a sense, it reminds me of the mental tug-of-war that colored a lot of Lydia Loveless’ excellent album from last year, Daughter.
Now, I don’t think the style always complements Dove as a vocalist, who is a little more nasal and can struggle with some of the high notes at points and slower tracks in “Sometimes It’s a Lonely Road” and “Golden Years” that emphasize that delivery. But there’s an earnestness to that delivery, too. Now, for me, I was hoping for more of the distinctive presence I heard on that debut and something a little less on-the-nose in terms of the stylistic choice when conjuring up those influences, as well as more moments that kept the momentum rolling like “Gas Station Blues.” Still, it’s a solid listen worth the attention – and between the smokier bass rolling off the gentler keys on “Chance in Hell” and the gentler piano playing off the pedal steel on “Haunted Hotel,” it’s got the needed highlights. Strong 7/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Chance in Hell” (w/ Jim Cuddy),” “Haunted Hotel,” “Hopeless Romantic,” “Gas Station Blues,” “New Endings, New Beginnings”
- Least favorite track: “Sometimes It’s a Lonely Road”
Mac Leaphart, Music City Joke
This is yet another name I saw drawing considerable critical acclaim from outlets I respect, and the weird part is they seemed to be as unfamiliar with Mac Leaphart as I and seemingly everyone else was. Now, for context, he’s a songwriter who moved to Nashville in 2012 and tried his hand as a commercial country songwriter, until that didn’t work out. And going through his discography, I can see why. His previous offerings are a little rough around the edges in capturing that John Prine influence in the writing, which, granted, is quite good in its own right. And while I liked the strong southern-rock influence on his 2015 album Low in the Saddle, Long in the Tooth, something was always off about the actual production on those albums, especially in regards to the vocals. Ironic, then, that the album to directly conjure up those influences is his newest and best yet. Now, the Guy Clark-meets-Ryan Bingham tone and phrasing is kind of hard to miss with Leaphart, and the easy criticism overall is that this can feel too on-the-nose in its style and presentation that owes most to the ‘70s singer-songwriter boom in Nashville. But I’ll also admit to being a sucker for that time period and like Leaphart’s more ragged delivery and interpretations that inform the content. It’s not so much a debut album as it is a way of starting over for him, which is most evident on the wry humor framing the title track. I’d tell you that Leaphart isn’t the greatest singer in the world, but I think he’s even more brutal there than I ever could be anyway. And again, he’s a fantastic writer, capturing a rare eye for detail in sketching the scene around him that informs these stories in both lighthearted and surprisingly dark manners.
Take “Blame on the Bottle,” for instance, which turns what could be a lesson on an alcoholic past into a reminder for listeners that the person behind it needs to take responsibility for their own actions. Alcohol only fuels something already broken, and it’s an excellent take on a familiar topic. Then there’s the part of me that just loves the humor of “Ballad of Bob Yamaha or a Simple Plea in C Major” that calls to mind Jamey Johnson’s “The Guitar Song” in its conversational, admittedly silly and corny personification of a guitar’s observations as it trades hands between musicians. And those this album is mostly a downbeat acoustic affair, it’s got those moments of levity in “Honey, Shake!” – because even wayward souls need to cut loose and dance sometimes – and the multiple excellent bluegrass-inspired solos driving “That Train” off the rougher harmonica for needed momentum, even if also including the radio edit wasn’t necessary here. And the redone version of “El Paso Kid” from that aforementioned 2015 album doesn’t feel like the right opener for this project at all, on that note. Of course, that’s also to say this album loses steam toward the end and can a feel little rushed in its delivery, particularly in the somewhat forced metaphor of “Window from the Sky” and other tracks that resort to typical singer-songwriter acoustic affairs over the same wry edges that frames the excellent first half. Still, it’s the sort of loose project that’s witty, charming and warm in its overall presentation, and while I’m on the fence about calling it a great project, I do predict it will grow on me with time. Extremely light 8/10 – give it a shot.
- Favorite tracks: “That Train,” “Ballad of Bob Yamaha or a Simple Plea in C Major,” “Blame on the Bottle,” “Music City Joke,” “The Same Thing”
- Least favorite track: “El Paso Kid”
Will Overman, The Winemaker’s Daughter
Here’s another name I’ve had in my backlog for some time, mostly because trying to decode a concept-themed debut album is a bold choice that required more time to listen through. And like with the other albums featured here, Will Overman’s debut album is one that wears its influences on its sleeve for better and worse. On one hand, the early John Mayer tone is right there in the delivery, and I’d say Overman is still trying to grow into himself as a vocalist. It’s most noticeable on the slower moments in the title track and the two closing numbers that emphasize that delivery, and I don’t think his slightly more hushed tone complements the sentiments well, nor does it help when he oversells the material. Still, there’s an earnestness to the delivery, too, especially when he underplays the brighter sentiments to emphasize the underlying darkness surrounding the actual content. That, of course, leads to the main thematic arc in question of growing old together with someone and being forced to grapple not only with the maturity required of it, but the inevitable hardships that come with it, too. It’s why I like “Bad Apartment” as an opener, which reflects on that initial “first house” one typically moves into after college that, while not viewed as an ideal long-term situation, is observed with fondness in the present context here when viewing one’s younger self with a bit of earnest nostalgia. Like the album, it’s somewhat quaint, but also honest in that reflection. And while the album can default to basic platitudes of “we love each other, so we’re going to make it” a bit too much for my personal liking, there’s also “Marine Street,” which shows those plans halted by the significant other’s cancer diagnosis, and “Elwood,” about a struggling musician who commits suicide and doesn’t see that dream through, because it’s “easier to burn out than fade away.” Sure, some of the brighter, more basic sentiments expressed in “Something to Hold” and “Little Things” can sound a little weak on their own, but they take on a greater role when the album characters take comfort in those little joys, because you never know what’s around the corner.
With that said, I wish the album expanded upon that theme a little more, especially at only nine tracks. I like the urgency driving “Little Things,” but it and the two closing tracks can default back to those basic platitudes and end this album on a bit of weaker note. Still, as a starting point sonically, I like how well-defined these mixes are, including the slicker, solid, lazy groove driving “Something to Hold,” the deeper atmospheric touches informing “Living Wage” in the great mandolin work, the bright, chipper smolder off the keys and organ of “Elwood” I wish we heard more of here, and the liquid folk-pop touches of “Little Things” that support a great hook, as well as just the brighter, warmer melodies across the board. Light 7/10 – it’s another one worth checking out from this batch.
- Favorite tracks: “Elwood,” “Little Things,” “Living Wage,” “Bad Apartment,” “Marine Street”
- Least favorite track: “The Winemaker’s Daughter”