Yes, I’m well aware of the album that garnered the most attention last week. No, I’m not going to bother with it – I barely tolerated Zach Bryan’s 34-song monstrosity last year, and at least I like his music. Instead, I want to focus on the independent scene and artists that actually deserve the acclaim and attention. Onward!
Drayton Farley, Twenty On High
Drayton Farley is an artist I’ve had my eye on for quite some time, despite not covering him until now. He started out with a few lo-fi, acoustic releases, which were heartfelt in their stabs at Americana-inspired iconography of forgotten middle America, but a bit too indistinguishable and lacking in greater teeth beyond that to settle further with me. In other words, I was looking more forward to the day when he could deliver something bigger and better, and with a Sadler Vaden-produced major label debut – featuring instrumental contributions from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band, no less – well, you’ve certainly got my attention.
Granted, I can’t tell if that means this album is an overall more robust offering compared to what Farley had delivered before, or if it’s stuck in a familiar shadow, or both. We’ll address that elephant in the room later on (let’s be dark and say, “pun intended”), but for as many issues as I had with “Norfolk Blues” from a writing standpoint for playing to stock “working man” tropes and a repetitive hook, the overall project is a lot more ambitious. It’s almost like a concept record in full, pulling from a more youthful bedrock of being stuck in a dead-end job (and life) and working to ditch the job to chase the dream – in this case, obviously, the dream of being the traveling musician putting his tools to more effective uses. As while tracks like “Stop the Clock” and “Wasted Youth” speak to wasted potential and regrets over the things Farley hasn’t done or accomplished, as the album progresses and he does reach his goal, there’s still that unease of, well, being an artist – where the work now requires one to bear their soul and try to communicate the weight of everyday burdens that come with growing up, accepting responsibility, and finding a way to balance it all.
In a way, if I wanted to invite further comparisons I could point to the Zach Bryan-esque youthful perspective that adds weight to this album’s sense of insecurity, or to Ruston Kelly through the very honest and vulnerable insights into imposter syndrome that are delivered well on aptly titled tracks like “Above My Head” and “Something Wrong (Inside My Head).” Even then, by ending with the homesick “Alabama Moon” and “All My Yesterdays Have Passed,” there’s an acknowledgment that all of that restlessness and recklessness he tried to outrun on earlier tracks is actually something worth reveling in, because with the dream goal realized and an actual relationship formed with a partner, it’s a reminder that we’re always going to want to chase those “good ol’ days,” even though we can’t, and even when they weren’t always that good, or, conversely, as bad as thought they were at the time. That’s not to say this album doesn’t sometimes settle for more broadly sketched tropes or fail to take its details further at points, but there’s a relatable anxiousness to this album that’s pulled off effectively well overall. Still, I do like how even if actual happiness and stability isn’t quite found by the time it ends with “All My Yesterdays Have Passed,” Farley is on the first step to getting there, and that counts for something.
I just wish it could count beyond the writing, because to circle back around to that inevitable shadowing comparison, it doesn’t help that Farley is a dead ringer for early era Isbell singing songs that hit similar notes. To be fair, while I don’t really get a lot out of Farley as a performer or interpreter, most of my issues stem with the production. It’s watery and washed-out in a way that contradicts very vulnerable and cutting writing, and with not a lot of variety in tempo or the compositions themselves, this is a project that can start to run together very quickly and, well, sound like warmed-over Isbell cuts, just without Dave Cobb’s production warmth. And what’s frustrating is that it has the potential to hit with the same emotional impact as any of those previously mentioned artists, but it just feels oddly hollow and muted throughout, where even the country instrumentation in the fiddle on “Devil’s In NOLA” or the general acoustics and organ just have no warmth present, outside of more restrained cuts like “Alabama Moon.” All in all, then, for me it’s an oddly disappointing (technical) first step with potential; no more, no less.
- Favorite tracks: “Above My Head,” “Something Wrong (Inside My Head),” “The Alabama Moon”
- Least favorite track: “Norfolk Blues”
Karen Jonas, The Restless
As far as the independent scene is concerned, Karen Jonas is one artist I always make a priority to cover. Most people remember her for her stunningly dark, visceral debut, 2014’s Oklahoma Lottery. And while I know people have wanted her to stay in that lane – although to be fair, she basically pivoted back to that on 2020’s fantastic, criminally overlooked The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams – her embrace of greater stylistic variety and diversion and playful theatrical flair were also valuable assets on projects like Country Songs and Butter. Though considering the fiery, damn-near biblical “Rock the Boat” led off newest project The Restless, I was excited to see her once again return to that lane.
Sadly, The Restless is an album that splits the difference between those darker edges and more playful theatricality, only loosely held together by its thematic arc but just lacking the greater lyrical punch this time around to elevate the former element, and the compositional punch to elevate the latter. I’m not sure what to ultimately attribute it to, either, because I very much enjoy this album’s foundation: a relationship-based thematic core where Jonas’ wide-eyed detail gives these tracks some unique, individual flavor – “The Breakdown,” about a stalkerish lover akin Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” is equal parts nutty and cute in a fairly endearing way – especially when you further factor in her trademark close vocal pickup to intensify her charisma and sultriness. But the issues feel twofold. The production just doesn’t have the sweeping punch or diversity of any of her previous offerings to lend greater emotional weight to the actual sentiments here. It just often sounds tasteful to a pleasantly dull fault, where outside of the atmospheric, sweeping murkiness of opener “Paris Breeze,” the restrained distance and warmth characterizing “Forever,” the fiercely intense “Rock the Boat” that makes for a sonic outlier here, and the greater heft overall in closer “Throw Me to the Wolves,” there’s just not lot of punch to this album. “The Breakdown” is overall nice and playful once it hits the first chorus, but the lead-up in the jerky flow and shrill backing vocals doesn’t help the journey. And “That’s Not My Dream Couch” is too low-key and lethargic in playing to the Butter-esque, jazzy lounge vibes to make whatever the punchline is supposed to be hit that well.
And I hate to say that lack of dramatic impact also characterizes the writing, but I think it’s an issue of Jonas exploring this general lane better on past projects. I like the unsure insecurities coloring a lot of the mistrust of “Lay Me Down,” but I liked the song better when it was called “Wasting Time.” Even outside of that, there’s a lack of the usual intensity that makes Jonas’ work so captivating, where the foundation for more complicated nuances are there in the vein of the haggard desperation of “Throw Me to the Wolves,” the moment where sultry becomes dangerous in “Paris Breeze,” and “Forever,” a portrait of a couple that used to operate under the “rich in love” mentality but have forgotten how to maintain it over time from distance and continued broken dreams. If anything, it’s why I wish this album didn’t play to the jazzy, longue-esque atmospheres so much, if only to have certain tracks like the strung-out Nashville musician on “Drunken Dreamer” who’s lost out on love and stability, the leap of faith required to lean into something more of “We Could Be Lovers,” or the messy entanglement of “Elegantly Wasted” hit more effectively on a compositional level the way they do elsewhere – really let those deeper insights into complicated relationships unfurl with more impact, in other words. As it is, it’s fine and certainly worth a listen, but I can’t help but call this an overall weaker effort.
- Favorite tracks: “Paris Breeze,” “Forever,” “Rock the Boat,” “Throw Me to the Wolves”
- Least favorite track: “That’s Not My Dream Couch”
The Panhandlers, Tough Country
I’m a bit surprised we got a second volume of material from this Texas group. Granted, when John Baumann, Cleto Cordero, William Clark Green, and Josh Abbott teamed up to release the first Panhandlers album three years ago, they delivered a ramshackle, rollicking ode to the flat, undesirable Panhandle of West Texas. And I don’t say that as a slight, because that was the entire point of the project in general – a sprawling slow burn that was surprisingly more layered than what initially met the eye and has held up well today.
If anything, though, that specific focus also gave me the feeling that it was a trick that might not work as consistently with a follow-up project, even despite my fondness for most of the solo work by the artists involved. And in a way, maybe they realized that too, because Tough Country feels more wide-eyed and self-aware, where the general focus is still there but willing to expand further – in writing, sound, and perspective in general. I will say that despite the humorous moments not always landing effectively for me, it is good to hear greater camaraderie between all four members involved this time around and more robust vocal performances. Still perhaps a bit more spread out than I’d prefer, but in capturing that intentional emptiness of the land itself, understandable, too. But I think the greater focus and refinement this time around comes through in the writing, where despite the familiar setting, this is more about speaking to the everyday people that live within it and their relatable plights – character-based storytelling first and foremost that anyone can gravitate toward, in other words, which might be one reason I ultimately prefer this to the first volume.
Heck, by opening with the generational folklore of the “Highwayman”-esque “Flat Land,” that alone establishes the connective throughline. But there’s also the title track, where Cordero’s softer, pensive writing can work exceptionally well to depict and then bolster average, hard-working people as so much more what they are, all while still maintaining a universality to the sentiment, at that. Although the crown jewel in this department for me is easily “The Corner Comedian,” which I’ll say right now will be in the running for one of my favorite songs of the year – the runaway pick right now, actually. Not just because it’s one of the most heartbreaking depictions of homelessness I’ve heard depitced in a country song through a character with only a stolen harmonica to his name, but also because he can look around at the people who walk past him and see that they’ve also fallen on hard times. They can’t throw him a dollar because they don’t have one for themselves. Empathetic, for sure, but more key to the point in establishing the universal suffering and odd sense of perseverance that can nevertheless define this project.
Like with the first volume, though, my issues come down to how jerky it can feel in terms of pacing, intentional as it may be: “Where Cotton is King” tries to aim for swampy, ‘70s-inspired outlaw country but lacks the groove to hit effectively and drags way too long, and “West Texas is the Best Texas” is, at the very least, a good showcase for how silly and self-aware these guys are about the cliché of Texas pride, even when it turns inward. But it’s a bit muted overall to let the punchline hit with a little more levity or actual humor, which is also why similar tracks in “The Chilton Song” and “Lajitas” aiming for that loose, breezy (and very boozy) swagger fall flat for me as well. Of course, flip it over to “Midland Jamboree” anchored by its breezy pedal steel and saloon piano, and you’ve got a track that can actually hit the mark.
That’s a good segue into the instrumentation and production, which of course is anchored in a lot of crisp richness in nearly all of its instrumental foundation – from the acoustics to the fiddle, pedal steel, and all – and also is the area where each artist gets to showcase a bit more of their unique personality from their other work: William Clark Green delivers a fantastic look at a drunken screw-up able to reflect on past mistakes but unable to actually change, as to be expected with his characters; John Baumann and Josh Abbott often aim for dry humor or straight-to-the-point moments of poignant insight throughout; and Cleto Cordero’s generally innocent, warm perspective gets to shine on the beautiful “Moonlight in Marfa,” the cutesy “I-Got-Your-Back Dog,” and opposite wife Kaitlin Butts on “Valentine, For Valentines,” clumsy as it is otherwise. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect with a second volume of material from these four, but this actually surpassed expectations by opening its worldview a bit more – it’s a consistently fun time.
- Favorite tracks: “Flat Land,” “Midland Jamboree,” “Tough Country,” “Moonlight in Marfa,” “Last Hangover,” “The Corner Comedian,” “I-Got-Your-Back-Dog”
- Least favorite track: “West Texas is the Best Texas”
3 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Drayton Farley, Karen Jonas, and the Panhandlers”
On the first listen, I quite enjoyed the Drayton Farley album, but I’m a bit surprised that I’ve come back to it so often already. It’s my most-listened to album so far this year. I can see what you’re saying about the lack of variety of tempo/sound throughout the album, but it works for me.
I’ve tried to get into Karen Jonas’ music, including this album, but it just doesn’t seem to work for me for whatever reason.
I was aware of the Panhandler’s first release, but I didn’t end up checking it out. After one listen of their new album, it’s solid and I can see me revisiting it from time to time.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I can see that; the Drayton album definitely seems to be clicking with a lot of people, so I’m glad he found a breakthrough! Honestly goes to show how widely varied (and somewhat weird) this year has been when it comes to everyone’s personal favorites, but that’s a good thing!
I agree! It’s been an interesting year so far – almost all the albums I’ve been listening to are new-to-me artists, which is always fun. There are a few albums coming out soon that I’m really looking forward to: Lauren Morrow, Bella White, Summer Dean and Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real.