To be honest, I wanted to review this album because of the cover. Between the classic font, and Fitzgerald sitting at the bar with his Seattle band in throwback country get-up, I figured if nothing else, I’d like looking at the cover while I listened.
Of course, you don’t go to that much effort on the cover art if you don’t have the tunes to back it up. The music is as nostalgic as the visual imagery, drawing on the best of honky tonk’s themes and arrangements.
Last Call opens with two-step number, “What Would You Do” where singer Fitzgerald’s clear voice soars above the answers offered to him by the pedal steel and fiddle. This set-up is typical of the rest of the album, only broken up by small changes in tempo and the appearance of occasional background vocals. If the whole record was played straight through at a bar, the crowd wouldn’t have to stop dancing. Fitzgerald gently urges the music into a contemporary context by throwing in lyrics more connected to present day urban life, as in “Let’s Go Out Tonight”, but these songs have enough ambiguity that they could easily be covers.
That’s the case with “Last Call”. I listened, initially thinking it was a cover, if not of a Hank tune, then at least someone from his era. Nope. Fitzgerald is the principal songwriter for the band, and he’s obviously schooled himself on the worst of country’s despair, the answer to which is often only found at the bottom of a whiskey glass.
I love the lyrics on “I Don’t Know Why”, where a tortured character lingers in a relationship too long, wondering if “I can’t be happy/ Unless I wear a frown/ Maybe misery’s the only company/ I’ll ever have with you”. “Long Gone Goodbye” switches smoothly between upbeat choruses and easy verses, employing familiar riffs throughout, a great dance tune. The second last tune, “Honky Tonk Hard Times”, is a good self-referential number that tells newcomers to the genre what it’s all about, and the album finished off with stompin’ fiddle tune “Family Ballad”.
No question the musicianship on Last Call is superb. Fitzgerald has surrounded himself with top players: Johnny Mercury on guitar, Russ Blake on pedal steel, and Joe Fulton and Greg Canote on fiddle. The interplay between the fiddle and Mercury’s guitar in “You Can Call Me Crazy”, for example, demonstrates that the group’s strength lies in the interaction between band members. They would be great to see live.
And on that note, one thing that was missing from me on Last Call was the grit of honky tonk. It’s a music that is necessarily dirty, and that’s been wiped away here, in the effort Fitzgerald made to capture the analog sound of country records from the 50s. A great idea, in that the clarity of the recording allows you to hear the fantastic, subtle musical things going on, but the absence of grit on songs like “The Rambler”, leave you with the impression that Fitzgerald is not a natural cad telling his woman, “I know I said I promise, but I promised everyone/ A ring around my finger, a rope around my neck/ I treat them both as equals and pay them no respect”...I think the live context would let us see the stay-out-late-drinking-cheating side of the band (or at least that of their audience), so I’m looking forward to when they come to town.
The album is available here and it’s worth getting, whether you’re in the mood for some of those “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” reminders, or if you want to get into a new band doing a fresh take on an old style.