It's been a while since I grabbed some CDs off the top of my review stack and just sat back to see what kind of impression they'd leave. I've been pressed for time this week, but wanted to take at least a couple hours to make a dent in that stack today. As the title of this post suggests, these are first impressions, not deeply thoughtful reviews. I know well that all the best albums take several spins to really sink in. I liked each of these enough to make sure I listen to them again. But if you're looking for some new music, I hope these first impressions give you enough of an idea to decide which one of these might be for you.
Dustin Welch - Tijuana Bible
This is good. The guitar work is exactly just right. There are just the right amount of cymbals. There's a darkness here which brings to mind Bob Dylan or Tom Waits. The opening track has a sort of tribal chant-and-howl to it, and Welch's voice has a climbing-out-of-the-dirt energy. It's a little bit strong, a little bit unhinged, a little bit scary at times. He seems to be weaving together elements of various mythological traditions, pulling good old-fashioned Texas songwriting with some underworld imagery ("Somewhere God is in a casket / the dogs are all circling around / waiting with tireless patience..."). I'm not sure how or why I missed his first album (this is, apparently, his second), but this guy seems to be a very fully realized songwriter. He's not working anything out here. It sounds like he showed up knowing just what to do, and you better get out of the way so he can do it. I'll be listening to this one again.
Emily Hurd - Any Given Day
I'm not sure what I expected from this album after looking at the coverart, but this was not it. Very lush, soulful music. There's a late '60s thing going on that instantly made me think Hurd has listened to a lot of Janis Joplin. As the disc plays on, there's some Randy Newman influence (without as much humor). There's trad country, an attempt at something vaguely bluegrassy, but something keeps missing the mark. Hurd's got a nice country-soul voice, but it needs longer, smoother notes to sing than those she grants herself on this album. The music swings, the band is tight. But I get the feeling some of these songs would be better sung by someone else, and Hurd would benefit from singing a different kind of song. I've used the word "soul" a few times already in this paragraph, but that's the most pervasive thing. Being a fan of country and folk music doesn't always mean you should aim for twang when you make music. I wonder how differently she might write if she listened to more Joan Osborne and Norah Jones. She approaches a sweet spot in "Children Believe," but the lyrics on that tune are distracting - they stumble behind Hurd's languid voice, like a toddler trying to wade over slippy river rocks, as the river just flows right along. I went over to her website, which says she has some affiliation with the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. That's awesome. But I still feel like her voice feels out of context in this style. It sounds like a chained thing. I don't mean to say the music's bad, but I'm distracted, as a critic, by the sense that she could be great if she wasn't trying to fit into a specific conglomeration of styles.
Daniel Romano - Come Cry with Me
If you couldn't tell by the photo on the cover, this is a damn old school country music record that doesn't take itself too seriously. You know how else you know? Because Romano sings in the very first song: "I'm living at the bottom of the bottom." And with that, I am in love. The whole thing is so earnest, you could spend the whole disc trying to figure out whether or not he's for real. If you don't laugh, you'll cry. It's like that. Romano's voice can strike that sweet, smooth tenor as well as it can sweep the deepest depths of growling, all the while stringing along his solid, memorable melodies. You people are going to eat this up, so I suggest you stop dawdling and just find yourself a copy. Whether he's telling sad woe-is-me tales like that opener ("Middle Child") or delivering "Alice's Restaurant"- style story songs like "Chicken Bill," the whole disc is just plain great. I'm honestly so tangled in the music while I listen that I can't think of anything intelligent to say about it, so here's this: This is an album I will listen to many, many times, and I bet you'll like it just as much as I do.
Two Hours Traffic - Foolish Blood
The first thing that comes to mind when this album kicks up is the Partridge Family Band. I can just picture Mrs. Partridge bumping the tambourine against her hip as the picture swirls into a montage of the bus on the road. Then the guitar solo happens, and I'm transported back to the present day. It's rock and roll, for sure, a little sweet-poppy for my taste; but it might be good for a road trip. I don't get the sense that there's anything richly profound getting unleashed in these songs. It's the sort of music that feels good without really doing anything to you. The disc's title sounds so very serious, but the music is very carefree and bouncy. Whatever. Not everyone puts the deepest depths of their soul into their music, and that's fine. It's not really my thing, though.
I feel like I need to wash myself in those Dustin Welch songs now, so I can feel rooted in reality again.