Tuesday, February 20, 2018

album review: 'solid ground' by wade bowen

So about three years ago, I covered a collaboration record between two Texas country veterans called Hold My Beer, Vol. 1. This project, assembled by Randy Rogers of the Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen, was, to put it simply, goddamn excellent, comfortably landing on my year-end list of the best records of 2015, with the deep cut 'El Dorado' being my third favourite song of that year, and if I could somehow find a damn copy of it on vinyl anywhere that'd be greatly appreciated! 

But putting my fruitless vinyl search aside, while I've covered the Randy Rogers band since, I've always had a certain amount of curiosity about Wade Bowen's greater discography... and unsurprisingly, it was worth the relisten, given that he's a sharp songwriter and has good instincts for a brand of Texas red dirt country that's accessible but still willing to cut a little deeper. And his career arc was similar to that of Rogers - he started off in the regional Texas scene independently, got signed to a major label, and then ended up independent again with more success than ever - but his time in the majors was considerably shorter, given that his label BNA was restructured after releasing only one record called The Given in 2012. And yes, that record is definitely a hidden gem if you want to check it out, but I'd probably still recommend his excellent 2008 record If We Ever Make It Home or even his self-titled 2014 record as more textured and interesting standouts for straightforward, no-bullshit country music.

So okay, why haven't you heard from him for a while? Well, he put out a record of gospel songs in 2016 dedicated to his mom, and a live record with the Randy Rogers Band, and now, but now we've got a Wade Bowen release proper, and given that country radio still has no damn clue what it's doing, I'd like to see Bowen stick the landing here. So, did we get it with Solid Ground?

Well yeah, he definitely did - and frankly, this is the sort of record where I could leave it at that, it really doesn't demand a lot of analysis or give me a lot to say beyond really damn solid, no bullshit country and southern rock that shows a diversity of style and a real mastery of tone that's made Wade Bowen an easy artist for me to like and revisit. Hell, the reason why this review is later than I had planned was the lingering question whether I was missing something or whether there was a need to say more... but hey, every year or so we get records like this from the indie country scene, and pushing to dig up more might be missing the point. 

Granted, the reason that Solid Ground does stand out is a commitment to the details, so let's start with the production and compositions here - and very early on this project, you're seeing not just a desire to expand the sonic palette of the Texas country in terms of instrumentation, but pushing still accessible production and tunes into territory with more layers and depth. The opening track 'Couldn't Make You Love Me' is a prime example of both factors: sure, the organ and blasts of harmonica are very welcome against the interweaving acoustic and electric guitars, and I really did love how Bowen is committed to a firm bass presence across this record, lending these tracks a heft that's a natural fit for the subject matter, but I also dug the gnarled guitar phrases with a little more distortion deeper in the mix, adding a little more of a progressive flavor to already strong melodic grooves. And that commitment to atmosphere comes up again and again, from the lingering potent melancholy of 'Broken Glass' to the echoing accordion and organ lines playing out with extended depth on '7:30', to the phenomenal ragged slow burn of 'Anchor'. Granted, I won't say the choices to indulge in extended atmospherics always works - it didn't quite feel as organic or well-placed on the closing track 'Calling All Demons', which with the echo and fade-outs and chain gang rattle reminded me of a slightly more polished version of what Eric Church was doing on The Outsiders and it ends the record on a bit of a sour note - but those moments are few and far between, especially as Bowen is plenty happy to delivery banjo-rich, straightforward red dirt country as well like 'Compass Rose' or 'So Long 6th Street' - featuring backing vocals from Jack Ingram and Miranda Lambert no less - or the organic warmth behind 'Death, Dyin' and Deviled Eggs'. Hell, you also get moments where you might expect an experimental flourish and it doesn't quite happen - 'Day Of The Dead' brings in a lot of pronounced Latin elements in the accordion and mariachi horns and Spanish guitar, but when you get 'Acuna' later on the record, a song all about a Mexican border town... it doesn't happen, and even despite having that great sleazy organ line and minor keys, it feels missing a bit of that spice.

Thankfully, the songwriting often steps up to fill in the gaps - and what you immediately notice is that thematically there is a core to this record, not so much surrounding 'endings' but lost time and reflections - hell, there's a dead relationship implied in the first two songs where you can tell Bowen is having to come to grips with how it wasn't going to work no matter what he did and she's moving on with brutal frankness. And it's not just there either - '7:30' catches him mid-morning with the news, 'Broken Glass' has him staring down at the girl sleeping in the morning knowing it's only a matter of time before his own actions drive him away, and though there is a hookup on 'Fell In Love On Whiskey', it's definitely a fleeting one and it's lost quickly in the hangover. But it's not just relationships either - both 'So Long 6th Street' and 'Acuna' has him reflecting on old haunts and border town trips that are fading from memory with the slow passage of time, and you can tell it's not totally sitting well with him in the minor progressions... or at the very least it's going down a little strange. 'Death, Dyin' And Deviled Eggs' captures the same discomforted emotions at the post-funeral brunch, and while it's more subtext than text, the strange feelings of maybe coming to some sense of closure with family does lend the song a reality I appreciated. And speaking of reality, 'Anchor' packs one hell of a wallop, a song Bowen wrote about his marriage years in with the genuine concern he's holding her back from a brighter happiness amidst familiarity, wondering if the passion has faded - and the fact that he lets it burn slowly gives the song a lingering heft, especially if you remember records like If We Ever Make It Home inspired by the same relationship. But this does take me to the one criticism I do have the writing, namely how it can feel a shade undercooked, more reliant on subtext to carry the emotional arc than actual text - and hell, sometimes I just wouldn't mind the third verse to add a little more meat or complexity to the metaphors and stories here. Granted, that might cut back on the accessibility, but at the same time, Wade Bowen is making indie country and he's certainly willing to stretch his compositions - he could do so with the writing too and I'd love to see how his frank and mature framing went further.

So yeah, I definitely dig this record, although it comes with the acknowledgement that it's not really for everyone. For those fans of meat-and-potatoes Texas country and southern rock it'll definitely click, with enough diversity, sharp songwriting and deeply felt grooves to connect... but that being said, it can feel a bit flabby around the edges and I do think it could have afforded to be a little more experimental or challenging, both in writing and production - hell, while I think 'Calling All Demons' didn't quite connect as a closing track for this record, I certainly see its appeal and I'd like to see Bowen step into rougher, more challenging territory. But as it is, this is a very light 8/10 for me and certainly a recommendation - plenty of great tunes with a lot of organic texture, this is not one you're going to want to skip. And if Wade Bowen decides to pull together another pressing of Hold My Beer Vol. 1 with Randy Rogers... well hey, they know how to find me. In the mean time, definitely check this out - you won't regret it.

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