If you were to look at one of the fastest-rising acts in the independent country world right now … well, given the short-lived hype cycle of today that demands new legends be created from out of nowhere every week, it could really be any one you want. But there is something tried and true about a band like 49 Winchester, an outfit that rose out of Russell County, Virginia, and built their following from a dedicated live show and a solid string of albums – including a 2020 release I really should have covered – before they were signed to New West Records.
And as a label debut, their latest effort, Fortune Favors the Bold, is relatively easy and straightforward to describe. Imagine a more soulful take on the country and southern-rock-leaning tendencies of, say, Whiskey Myers – especially considering that Issac Gibson’s vocal range plays in close proximity to Cody Cannon’s anyway – and you’ve got a decent indication of what you’re getting into here. And it really is that soulful touch that defines and anchor the sound here, given that this is not a band that opts for oily swagger really anywhere on this album, outside of maybe “All I Need”; the plentiful organ augmenting the low-end of this album makes for the surprising unsung hero of this project.
This works mostly to the album’s benefit and detriment. On one hand, there is something to be said for how relatively crisp and straightforward this album can come across in its tone and composition, especially when it lends itself nicely to the progression of a track like “Russell County Line” that’s got the space to breathe and lead in to that electric solo phenomenally well. It comes too early on in the album to call it a centerpiece, but it is the anchoring point and moment of pay-off that all other tracks lead back to, especially with the weariness of the road-dog mentality starting to take its toll on our character here and the cracks in the facade starting to show.
But this is also an album I’d say could have afforded a bit more punch and muscle in the actual tones to strengthen the melodic grooves here, because while certain moments like the slightly minor bass groove of “Annabel,” and the chunky yet conventional blues-rock progressions of tracks like “All I Need” and “Man’s Best Friend” come close to getting there, this often feels like an album that plays too safe and never really opens up as much as it could, again, outside of that fantastic end to “Russell County Line.” It’s like there’s a stiffness to the texture that deflects from the greater impact these songs could have had.
Granted, that’s also a good way to describe the songwriting, which plays to very conventional tropes in the portrayal of the all-American road-weary band playing in bars and trying to make it back home unscathed. And to be fair, lead singer Issac Gibson is a potent enough singer to carry that lived-in weariness, especially when he gets to open up and lend himself to some great hooks on tracks like “Neon” and the more playful, seedier nature of the title track I really dug. And outside of “Second Chance” feeling a bit overwrought and me wishing he was placed a little higher in the mix to hit with greater impact, I’d say he’s one of the main selling points of this project.
But, I don’t know – maybe it’s the generally lightweight nature of this album, but this is also a project that seems content with itself even in spite of its hints at a deeper darkness lurking beneath, which mutes the dramatic stakes far more than it should. Take “Hillbilly Daydream,” for example, which tries to play to outlaw iconography in its character being the messed-up troublemaker constantly running from the law, and yet that lazy rollick that accompanies it just seems like an odd mismatch in tone. And I’d say the same applies to the oddly jerky and jaunty closer in the bar-ready “Last Call” that feels like it was handled with at least a bit more weight and nuance right before on “Neon.”
It’s why I like “Russell County Line” so much, because it’s the moment where it feels like our character has to face reality and accept that his hard living ways and constant time spent away from home have real effects on those left behind – consequences he can no longer ignore. It’s also why that ending climax feels so cathartic, because it feels like he’s finally choosing the way home. And you get other hints of that on the regretful “Annabel” and the stirring “Neon.” Even when the album does opt for lighter, more humorously seedy stakes, “Man’s Best Friend” and “All I Need” are decent enough. And as a whole, this is a solid listen from a band that’s earned its breakout moment and will likely play better live; I get why fans are championing this release so loudly. I think for me, though, this is an album that needed to push a little harder in the writing and presentation to anchor itself in a bit better, because it’s really good … but it’s also just shy of actual greatness.
- Favorite tracks: “Russell County Line,” “Neon,” “Annabel,” “Fortune Favors the Bold”
- Least favorite track: “Hillbilly Daydream”