As I’ve said too many times thus far this year, a lack of interesting new projects on the horizon this year thus far means that, like in 2021, I’ve resorted more to taking chances on new discoveries. I don’t mind that, either. For one, at some point in the near future we’ll surely face the flood of new releases that settles for normal in these modern times, and it also keeps me on my toes by taking a chance on an act, rather than having them come to me or just letting them pass me by. It’s why, ironically enough, January tends to be one of my favorite release periods of the year. The slowness is actually welcome and manageable.
In other words, it’s given me time to explore Noah Guthrie, an artist who some folks may know for his time on America’s Got Talent or Glee … or not, given the messy history of the latter show and that singing competition shows like the former don’t have the same impact they did in the 2000s. To be honest, I was far less interested in that anyway as I was his backlog of projects, which started with a messy, uneven, pop-folk-inspired debut in 2013, followed by an even odder string of covers projects the next year. He pivoted more toward a country/folk-rock-influenced sound for 2017’s The Valley, and to me it was a vast improvement in almost every way. As such, it didn’t surprise me that his follow-up released this year seemed to generate at least some buzz in certain country music circles, and I’m happy to report that, like with Tony Logue last week, Guthrie’s Blue Wall is another welcome discovery in 2022.
The thing is, it’s so earnestly straightforward and easy to dissect in what it does right, that I had initially planned to reserve it for a future album roundup. But it’s so note-perfect in its melodic construction and hook-driven like crazy, that it became an album I wanted to revisit regularly. And if only to give it further exposure, I wanted to dive in further.
In comparison to past projects, Guthrie is growing leaps and bounds as a performer, the sort of charismatic presence with a huge, expressive range capable of capturing sheer, fiery intensity almost naturally. I want to leap to Marcus King or Anderson East as obvious comparisons, but Guthrie is far less retro and likely better for it. Presuming he doesn’t blow out his voice howling the way he does, he’ll go far on that alone. On the other hand, he’s able to ease back and deliver real subtlety and quieter emotions on tracks like “That’s All,” “Things to Fix” and the great title track closer, and the delivery is just as powerful. With that said, the hooks on the more stridently blazing moments are a marvel to behold, and considering this album is mostly mid-tempo throughout, I did, admittedly, keep wishing for more anthemic moments like the opener, “Hell or High Water” or “Wishing I Was Wrong” to help even out the album’s mood and pacing.
Granted, that’s not to say that the album ever drags, and that’s a two-fold statement. On one hand, while the melting pot of influences in folk-inspired rock and country tones feels familiar, the production is just so consistently on-point to let it all soar with personality, that it just does so much right with what’s already been established. The basslines rattle and thrum, and the guitars are warm enough to provide some great subtle country texture, especially on “Things to Fix.” And the swell of meatier electric guitars, organ and some excellently timed solos are always given the full depth of tone needed to hit – even on the tracks I wouldn’t designate as highlights otherwise. Be it the shimmering high of “Hell or High Water,” the moody yet rich swell running across “That’s All” against Guthrie’s pained delivery, or that firmly anchored dobro on “Things to Fix,” this album finds a richness right from the start and doesn’t really falter. Sure, it’s familiar in tone, and there are more conventional cuts in the tepid soul of “High Enough” that sometimes hold the album back, but it’s those little details that give this album its heartbeat. Like the wistful yet melancholic rollick of the pedal steel and fiddle interplay rampant across the album highlight “Wishing I Was Wrong,” the warm, 70s-inspired rattle of “When You Go,” or how “Only Light I Need” starts as a faint acoustic ballad before opening up and erupting into something more and capturing some genuine anthemic muscle along the way.
And as for whether or not all of that passion is also captured in the writing … well, yes and no. In truth, this is the area where I’m least impressed, but it’s more because of what it aims for, rather than any glaring faults. It’s a project where the bigger focus was on a powerful presentation over what actually gets said, and I can respect that. Actually, on a track like the otherwise preachy “Let The Damn Thing Break,” I may even prefer that, if only for that monstrous groove that looks to tear down broken systems with real firepower and populism behind its message. If anything, the songwriting is mostly painted in broad strokes and doesn’t stray much from tracks caught in the frays of the aftermath of a relationship. Because of the greater variety in tone and production, I wouldn’t say it necessarily runs together, but it does mean certain songs don’t stand out as much as they could, especially as one moves toward the middle and latter half of the album.
Still, I appreciate a lot of the framing here in capturing how these relationships end for either faults on both sides or because of Guthrie’s stubborn pride. There’s anger and regret, and sometimes it can get a bit toxic, like on “High Enough,” but it’s never petty, and Guthrie is also mature in considering his partner’s perspective own reasons for needling to let go. If anything, while I made comparisons earlier to Anderson East and Marcus King vocally, some of the more intimate, confessional, singer-songwriter moments in “That’s All,” “Things to Fix,” and “Wishing I Was Wrong” drew to mind Southeastern-era Jason Isbell, and that’s a high compliment. It’s why even when the album does aim for big, broad sentiments in “Welcome the Stranger,” “Only Light I Need,” or “Let the Damn Thing Break,” more often than not I’m board because the heart is there in other ways anyway and the pay-off feels well-earned regardless.
Again, over the past week this became an album I didn’t want to put down – the sort of tightly crafted project that’s brimming with personality, hooks and excellent production and doesn’t wear out its welcome. There’s a lot of potential here that may even have room to grow, and while January projects tend to get overlooked, this is one that shouldn’t. 2022 is off to a great start thus far.
- Favorite tracks: “Hell or High Water,” “That’s All,” “Things to Fix,” “Wishing I Was Wrong,” “Feel It Now,” “Only Light I Need,” “Blue Wall”
- Least favorite track: “High Enough”