Album reviews: Zach Bryan, Wreckless Eric, Hiss Golden Messenger
Zach Bryan / Zach Bryan (Belting Bronco/Warner Music)
With country music currently at the centre of America’s culture wars, it seems as if artists have to clearly state their intentions, or risk having their narratives hijacked by either side of the political spectrum (see a certain recent red-bearded viral hitmaker). It’s tempting to believe that’s precisely what Zach Bryan had in mind when making his fourth album. Coming off the massive success of his 2022 album, American Heartbreak, expectations for the Oklahoma native have increased considerably, and Zach Bryan opens with a poem that makes his case for being a humanist. It’s a powerful statement that sets the stage for the ensuing 15 songs to convey the collective fatigue we’ve experienced over the past few years. Songs like “Fear And Friday’s” contain a Springsteen-like longing for simple pleasures, and ballads such as “I Remember Everything” (a duet with Kasey Musgraves) verge on uncomfortably revealing, while confirming that Bryan is one of the best lyricists working in country music right now. Zach Bryan isn’t easy listening, but it suggests that if more songwriters had the courage to be this earnest, it might actually end up bridging the cultural divide.
Hiss Golden Messenger / Jump For Joy (Merge Records)
Fifteen years into his exploration of the boundaries of folk-rock under the banner Hiss Golden Messenger, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter M.C. Taylor is still searching for a sound that encompasses his ambitious ideas. Jump For Joy may be HGM’s most wide-ranging collection yet, although—as the title suggests—the music is driven by a pure sense of wonder and discovery, with bouncy rhythms and simple melodies often paying homage to classic jam bands, albeit without much of the instrumental fireworks. It could also be said that Jump For Joy bears similarities to Wilco’s recent work, and while Taylor and Jeff Tweedy do share a knack to using roots music’s primary colours to paint surreal visions of America, with the exception of a few songs such as “Feeling Eternal” and the funky title track, too much of Jump For Joy feels undercooked. It seems plausible that Taylor will eventually produce a masterpiece, but until then, we’ll have to appreciate the moments on Jump For Joy that keep such hope alive.
Wreckless Eric / Leisureland (Tapete Records)
Having been born a little too late to fully appreciate the late ‘70s confluence of British punk and pub rock that gave us Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker and Squeeze, another name that can be included in that exalted group, Wreckless Eric, never meant that much to me. Then came that Expedia commercial a couple years ago, narrated by Ewan McGregor and featuring a song sung by a kid with a high, reedy voice, saying he’d travel the whole wide world to find his girl. Of course, that song was Wreckless Eric’s first and best known hit, “Whole Wide World.” By all rights, it should have been much bigger, but Eric’s cult status is understandable given the competition among his peers. Now at age 69, and following a nearly fatal bout with COVID, he’s returned with Leisureland, a 15-song collection that confirms the Wreckless Eric legend. Fans will be pleased to know his voice still cuts with a youthful edge, and modern production techniques have been able to enhance his ragged-but-right guitar playing with enough effects to cover Leisureland in a psychedelic patina that complements Eric’s trademark British eccentricities. Occasionally, it goes a bit over the top, but the old power pop magic remains on songs like “Standing Water” and “Drag Time.” A contender for comeback of the year.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Flint & Feather / “The Very Thing I Fear” (Sojourner Records)