Monday, November 20, 2017

album review: 'a long way from your heart' by turnpike troubadours

Well, it's about damn time, isn't it?

Seriously, if it wasn't for Patreon tiers shifting this down, I would have covered this record a good month ago - and frankly, I'm a little surprised the country fans I do have on Patreon didn't vote for this more! Maybe it's a factor of the band not quite yet having the same mainstream breakthrough or name recognition as many of their peers... and yet talk to any indie country fan in the know about a go-to band for them, I'd put money on Turnpike Troubadours showing up pretty damn high on their list, they're definitely picking up more of that audience.

So for everyone else, who are these guys? Well, they're an Oklahoma country band that has been putting out damn excellent, textured country records for the past decade - and just like Parker McCollum, they're entirely independent and have built up a pretty impressive grassroots following. But even though they do flirt with the rougher sides of Americana and southern rock, nobody would dare say these guys weren't country through and through, keeping the guitar and fiddle tempos and playing aggressive to match remarkably textured and impassioned lyrics that have supported them on record after record. Now I will say I'd be hardpressed to find a single record of theirs that stands out the most - they've got the sort of uniform high quality that informs bands like Blackberry Smoke or The National or Spoon - but the album I got into them the most was their second record Diamonds & Gasoline that just nails that ramshackle edge perfectly for me, although their self-titled album in 2015 is a damn solid introduction too. And thus when critical buzz was suggesting this was somehow even sharper than their previous efforts, you can bet I wanted to cover it - even if it hasn't proven to be the breakthrough just yet, I wanted to do my part and dig in. So what did I find on A Long Way From Your Heart?

Well, Turnpike Troubadours did it again, because this is a damn great record... and honestly, it's the sort of subtle greatness that has characterized so many of their albums: sharply written songs with phenomenal melodic interplay, solid production, and a sense of grounded wit and detail that makes so many moments stand out. But is this record a standout as a whole? Well, a little tougher to say, but if you're going to characterize A Long Way From Your Heart as having any unique quality to itself, it's a feeling of maturity and world-weary experience that doesn't so much mute the edges but weathers them, provides a little more texture and gravitas.

And really, what works for this record is what has worked for so many Turnpike Troubadours records already: great tonal balance in the production and really solid foundational melodies. Yes, this record doesn't quite have the same hardscrabble edge I loved about Diamonds & Gasoline but listen to the firm bass grooves that drive the blasts of harmonica and banjo on 'The Winding Stair Mountain Blues', or the warm thick acoustics of 'Unrung', or those phenomenal touches of fiddle and accordion on 'Old Time Feeling (Like Before)'. Hell, just in terms of acoustic-leaning midtempo ballad tracks both 'Pay No Rent' and 'Sunday Morning Paper' are just damn great songs on a compositional level, with real attention played to the low end groove, guitars that have real rich organic tone, some damn solid organ and saloon piano, and interplay that can balance them out masterfully. And then you get songs like 'Pipe Bomb Dream', that manages to crank up the momentum just through the usage of a faster kickdrum beat, a much deeper guitar groove and a phenomenal fiddle solo. But it goes deeper than that: this record breezes by at such a clip that you almost don't realize how many of the hooks will just stick in the brain, or how often they rely on minor key progressions that buck conventional country compositions, and with such deft craftsmanship that you don't notice how meticulous it can sound with such effortless energy. Now if I were to nitpick here, I will say that frontman Evan Felker's vocals can feel a shade too quiet at points - he's got the intensity and he's only becoming more of an emotive singer, but as a frontman I think he could use a little more presence overall in the mix like on 'The Hard Way' or 'A Tornado Warning', even if him sounding a little drowned in the cacophony in the latter case is part of the point.

But onto that point, let's talk about the songwriting, where I'd argue the most pronounced change has come through. It's been mentioned that Evan Felker has found some form of sobriety and stability in recent years given some of his wilder antics in the past - and if art reflects life, it definitely comes through here, with the record starting out with 'The Housefire' and leaving our protagonist confident he'll find his way and sure of his partner's love, but shaken nonetheless. And it's that weight of experience and time that repeatedly colours the best songs on this album, an acknowledgement that he's not going to tear it down the same way he used to, more because the consequences of said actions can come through much more starkly, such as actually getting caught on 'Pipe Bomb Dream'. But what I really love about this album is that while these stakes and consequences are there, it never becomes patronizing or hectoring, even with friends who are still very much living that fast, hard life like on 'The Winding Stair Mountain Blues', where while he's struggling to make a living that friend living hard winds up in an incident with guns - thankfully, the one shot made it out alive. Or take 'Unrung', where he sees a fellow musician friend hooking up with a much younger woman and he wants to warn him of the danger... but he ultimately stays his hand and tells the girl not to hurt him too much, showing a restraint I really do respect. And that restraint plays exceptionally well to the songs about relationships - yeah, it might play a tad broad on 'Something To Hold Onto', but go to the wistful remembrance of 'Old Time Feeling (Like Before)', knowing a far more successful old flame will wander back into his life if only for a time - he just hopes they can play the encounter in a major key and leave behind good memories. And that sense of camaraderie and companionship comes through perhaps the best on 'Pay No Rent', which Felker and former band member John Fullbright wrote about Felker's late aunt but even with the details there's enough ambiguity to apply to any girl behind the bar who has long moved on but you've cultivated a friendship with all the same, very reminiscent of the excellent James McMurtry song 'These Things I've Come To Know' in the best way possible. Hell, I even dig his appreciation of rock's increased age on 'Sunday Morning Paper' - perhaps a tad cliche, but I'll admit I'm a sucker for these sorts of songs - I liked it when Deep Purple did it this year with 'Johnny's Band', I like it here too.

Now again, I have some nitpicks with the writing - I know 'A Tornado Warning' is playing more light, but I do wish it had captured a bit more of that sense of danger, and I'm not sure how much longer moonlit encounters she doesn't remember on songs like 'Oklahoma Stars' will work in today's day and age - even if I do appreciate how the song is framed with wistful regret and including some damn solid backing vocals from Jamie Lin Wilson, the choice of words could definitely be better. And maybe it's just me, but for as quick as this record can play, I do wish they'd opt to maybe opt for one more ballad on this project, give Felker's writing a little more space to breathe and fill up more texture - but if my complaints are that I'm asking for more, you've got a damn good record indeed! For me, this is a solid 8/10 and for sure a recommendation - folks, there are very few better country albums than this that have come out in 2017, and you're going to want to make time for this one - definitely check it out!

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