Thursday, January 12, 2017

album review: 'something together' by courtney patton & jason eady

So I get the feeling this is my fault again in a big way. I mean, I could blame the collective country music press for dropping the ball here - and I do - but to some extent if I was that invested in one of my favourite indie country acts putting out a record, I should have been on top of it. Granted, this is also a prime example of what happens when the artist decides to drop a record early without warning and not having the huge fanbase of someone like Run The Jewels or Beyonce, but we're getting ahead of ourselves with this.

So, if you've been watching since around 2014 you might recognize the name Jason Eady, a Texas country artist who played the sort of relentlessly realistic, amazingly well-framed, powerfully written country that wouldn't seem to have a chance in hell in the mainstream, and while he made his play to that crowd in 2012 with the softer AM Country Heaven, his 2014 album Daylight & Dark pulled no punches. There was a purity to that record's grit and sound that still gets to me to this day, and as such it should be no surprise that outside of... hey look, it's Run The Jewels again, it would have been my top album of 2014.

But if you remember that record, it also had a song with fellow singer-songwriter Courtney Patton called 'We Might Just Miss Each Other', featuring a pair of estranged lovers going to the same bar and trying gamely to avoid each other for plenty of understated and complicated reasons - kind of ironic, given that she's his wife. The two are a songwriting pair, and that's a powerhouse couple to be reckoned with, so I was eagerly anticipating their planned acoustic collaboration Something Together, especially if they were primed to push their songwriting into interesting places to play different roles. The album was announced in October of 2016 to be released in early 2017... and then the record leaked early on Courtney Patton's website, with physical copies now available this year. And from what I can tell, nobody really seemed to notice because not only did I get no requests for it, but it seems like practically nobody else online decided to review this project, including critics I would otherwise expect to be on top of this! But okay, that happens, and I might as well be first to the punch here, so how is Something Together?

Well okay, after several listens through this I can see why some people, even in the indie country set, might have overlooked this project. For one, it's not all original songs - most are acoustic rerecordings of previous songs from both artists, along with a couple of covers. And coupled with the low-key release and the intimate feel of the record, you can get the impression that it's very much a side project between the two, a chance to reinterpret some established tracks as duets to add different context or flavor. I say all of this to temper expectations - and yet when I'm telling you that you need to get this anyway because it's excellent, that's a testament to how well Patton and Eady refined their respective sound and chemistry into something potent and captivating.

So let's talk about that chemistry first, because it's really the reason why this album has so much organic emotive power in the first place. This is not a Chris and Morgane Stapleton situation where both artists are naturally belters - while Patton might bring a little more aggressive presence, this record works entirely in subtlety in the sort of lived-in relationship songs where vocal emotion and tension is balanced with the writing, not overpowering it. And that balance is so damn potent that it's almost to the point where I wish the record's production and writing fed into it more, especially in the vocal balance. As you might expect many of these songs are presented where one artist takes the lead with the other contributing backing vocals, but I get the impression an alternative arrangement, with a slightly fuller contribution from both artists could have made for more interesting context, especially lyrically. Granted, that's what happens when you adapt songs that aren't quite meant to be duets, like the opener 'Judgement Day' which strips the song down into campfire blues territory but doesn't really do much with the vocal interplay in comparison with the balance on the excellent 'Lonesome Down And Out' or 'Man On A Mountain' or especially 'Where I've Been' or 'Cry Pretty'. Sometimes you wish the leads were shared a bit more, like on the relationship fable 'So This Is Life' or maybe 'Twelve Days' if it was done right, but then you have the straight breakup song 'Twisted' where I'm not sure it entirely clicks, especially when we get to the bridge.

Granted, I'm nitpicking about that because I'm otherwise finding a lot of these arrangements incredibly powerful in their own right. As I said, the setup here is pretty sparse: acoustic guitars, maybe hints of sandy or jingling percussion - but what Eady and Patton do is keep that warm fidelity of tone that comes in the guitar and match it in the vocal pickup, something that wasn't always present on Patton's last album on songs like 'So This Is Life' or 'Twelve Days'. But on the flip side, you also get cases where the guitar arrangement is slightly shifted, like the additional of a key change and opening of minor chords on 'Lonesome Down And Out', which adds a darkness to the song that I'd argue improves it considerably - and that song was off of Daylight And Dark, there wasn't much room for improvements! But what I love about this is the intimacy: by stripping back to plain acoustics but not polishing the fidelity to a sheen, it lends the record a closeness that makes these stories hit all the harder, even songs like 'Man On A Mountain', 'Better Move It On Home', and 'Welcome Table' that have a little more traditional rollick to them, on the fact of them being covers. But if I want to single out a composition that really grabbed me it was 'The Words To My Favourite Memory' - written by Courtney Patton, it follows Jason Eady's cover of the Merle Haggard song and it's hard not to see this as the followup, even utilizing similar elements of composition for a really potent two-for-one.

And to explain why it works so well, we need to talk about songwriting... and look, the way the production is set up it's very clear that Patton and Eady were looking to place the most focus on the storytelling here - and especially with the original songs, they really stick the landing. The writing is brisk and succinct yet emotionally intelligent from the both of them, with Patton bringing a little more detail but perhaps a shade less refinement in the cadence and flow. And yet if you were expecting this duets album to be full of love songs... well, outside of 'Love Song', which I'd argue is easily the least interesting and weakest track here, this album goes into some mature and impressively complex relationship drama, which the instrumental framing and intimacy places almost uncomfortably close. The spiraling mess of both partners on 'Lonesome Down And Out', the acknowledgement of a dead relationship they need to end on the original 'Suffering Fools', how Patton's subtle additions to the hook add another layer of lingering heartbroken balance to 'Cry Pretty', it encapsulates what I've always loved about their writing, such a startling frankness of the emotional dynamic that's both too mature and yet too exhausted and worn down to be anything but straightforward. It's what makes the bitter directness of 'Twisted' work, or the small scope of the family story on 'So This Is Life' feel so real where the perfect American family comes apart in their hands, or even the brighter touches of 'Man On A Mountain', where if they can't find compromise it's just not going to work. But outside of 'Cry Pretty', which remains a clear album standout, there's two other songs that deserve attention, the first being 'The Words To My Favourite Memory' where in the middle of listening to that Merle Haggard song, Patton gets a call that her husband has died, and it's a simple but heartbreaking statement on how music and especially a song about memories can become too real. And then there's 'Where I've Been', where the framing paints the spark having long died, and she's thus striking out to find satisfaction outside the marriage... and yet if he was willing to try, they could have something, but that would require effort she's not sure is there anymore. It's a heartbreaking yet powerfully realistic song, and considering the delivery, I can't imagine how difficult that might be to write and sing opposite your husband and make it believable - not just a testament to the writing but the performance as well.

So as a whole, where do I find on Something Together? Well, I could say that I wish the vocal arrangements were a little more diverse and balanced within the individual songs, or that we got more originals because with the exception of 'Love Song' they knocked it out of the park with those, but those are minor gripes and are indicative of wanting more rather than actual flaws. For what Courtney Patton and Jason Eady were trying to execute in themes and stripped back intimacy, I'd argue they pulled it off masterfully, and the courage to go into broken relationship territory and perform them so well is genuinely stunning. Even the lesser cuts - I'm not especially wild about any of the covers, even though the Merle Haggard one definitely belongs here - they're still damn good songs, which leaves me giving this a very strong 8/10 and a huge recommendation. Folks, far too many people will have slept on this release - fix that, because this album is definitely worth your time, and highlights a start to 2017 that's just getting stronger.

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