When Todd Snider formed the Hard Working Americans, his aim was to merge the jamband ethos with that of the singer-songwriter tradition he came out of, putting a new emphasis on the instrumental aspects of his songs. One of the members of that estimable ensemble is Jesse Aycock, a multi-instrumentalist out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has also backed musicians such as Elizabeth Cook and The Secret Sisters. Now, with this self-titled set of 13 originals, Aycock shows himself to be an accomplished and winning writer and frontman in his own right.
Intensely introspective in his writing and understated in his singing, Aycock, to be sure, flirts with mopiness here. But he wisely seems to take his cue from the opening track, “Shed the Light,” which shows his gift for melodic rock as he notes: “Blessed are the ones who shed the light even in the darkest times.” His songs may be haunted by loss and hurt and doubt, but he lets the music be the light. (Aycock, on guitar, steel guitar, and keyboards, is backed here by fellow Tulsa musicians.)
“It’s sadder than a sunset when you ain’t got time to lose,” Aycock observes on “Sadder Than a Sunset.” Accented by piano and steel and with country echoes, it’s emblematic of the kind of slow, evocatively atmospheric numbers that dominate the album. Another one, “Passing Days,” ends with a long, lyrical guitar solo that both punctuates and transcends the hangdog narrative.
Such songs are broken up by the likes of “High Hopes,” a propulsive rocker, and “Rolling South,” whose laid-back, insinuating groove brings to mind Tulsa great J.J. Cale. And on the rocking “Past Life,” Aycock almost seems to be addressing those who might question his relentless self-awareness: “If I keep my eyes from closing / Will I see the life I’ve chosen / Am I better off not knowing / Turning nothing into a song.”
Aycock ends with “Woodland Park,” a countryish lope with few words that merely sets a scene. It allows him to end the album on an upbeat note while highlighting the way he uses the music to lift the spirit out of despair.