Talk about humility. If you didn’t flip the CD cover over and notice the handsome wavy-haired guy sporting cool shades and a black turtleneck, you’d never know the Cicadas’ self-titled debut was singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s latest project. And that’s just the way he wants it.
After 20-some-odd years of cranking out intelligently crafted, against-the-grain country-pop gems, Crowell has once again snuck out from behind the Nashville music-biz brass and hat-act promulgators, this time by opting to be part of a rock ‘n’ roll band. Crisp backbeats, Brit-pop power chording and soaring harmonies abound, with Crowell backed by guitarist extraordinaire Steuart Smith (Rosanne Cash and Shawn Colvin), drummer-vocalist Vince Santoro (Roy Buchanan and Edgar Winter) and bassist Michael Rhodes (Steve Winwood and the Nerve).
“When Losers Rule The World”, co-written by Crowell and Ben Vaughan, kicks off the recording with a Rockpile-ish rhythmic groove punctuated by a brilliantly understated 12-string electric guitar solo that would make George Harrison proud. John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” rips with garage-band abandon as Smith weaves some stinging, nasty lead guitar around guest keyboardist Benmont Tench’s cheesy Animals-like organ fills and Crowell and Santoro’s gut-wrenching vocals. “We Want Everything”, written by Crowell after the suicide of a close friend in New Orleans, features Beatlesque arpeggios behind a haunting yet urgent vocal sung by Crowell and Santoro in octave parallels.
Crowell collaborated with Guy Clark on “Our Little Town”, a moving, pop-flavored paean about rural America. The song starts with a Keith Richards-like guitar intro that also recalls the Mamas & the Papas’ classic “Monday, Monday” and continues with a catchy melody marked by chiming guitars, ethereal harmonies and a thumping rhythm section.
The album’s high point is arguably its closer, the Crowell-penned “Still Learning How to Fly”. Beginning with Crowell’s plaintively delivered Texas tenor behind sparse acoustic guitar-and-harmonica accompaniment, the song builds in emotional, gospel-like intensity to an anthemic crescendo as the singer proudly bears witness to the triumph of the human spirit in spite of overwhelming odds.