Most people do not like being the bearer of bad news. Seriously, “Shoot the messenger” is a pretty common saying. It is not clear whether Nashville-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Jon Latham takes any great pleasure in bringing bad news, but he writes truths about life and in life bad news sometimes comes with the territory. Not all of Latham’s debut album, Real Bad News, is bad news, but there is a pretty healthy quota of sad songs. Thankfully, due in large part to the words and music, he is able to soften the blow. The production work of Josh Morris at Fort Dakota Studio deserves much credit for finding the right sonic groove for Latham’s songs to inhabit.
The album opens with “Major Key”, a rousing rocker that would make Springsteen or Tom Petty proud. The song is jam packed with musical references from Eddie Cochrane to Charlie Rich, and the lyrics even take a potshot at the singing drummer of a certain California band from a few decades back. There is an intense fever dream-like quality to the often surrealistic lyrics, and remarkably Jon Latham finds a way to adeptly pull the whole thing together. It is an excellent start to the record.
“Dorothy” tells the story of an aging stripper whose schick is to dress-up as Judy Garland’s character from the Wizard of Oz. Musically, the song evokes an earlier era – perhaps a time when the title character really did resemble a farm girl from Kansas. Above all, there is a gentleness in the depiction of this character. As in “Major Key” Latham casually tosses off brilliant lines with such ease that repeated listening result in new levels of appreciation. Jon Latham plays almost all of the instruments on the album, but on Dorothy: a couple of fine Nashville songwriters lend a hand. Shawn Conerton plays banjo and Kiely Schlesinger adds some distinctive vocal pytoyechnics.
“When I Can” brings things down and serves to demonstrate that Jon Latham is fully capable of writing a more straight-forward song. The word play is still strong but more restrained, and the yearning of the song’s subject is almost palpable.
The unambiguously titled “Waitressing Sucks” weaves together blue collar struggles and dreams with the often challenging task of distinguishing between a person and an ideal. The song rise from a whisper to a crescendo and falls again – kind of like life sometimes.
On “Hand Me Down Heart”, the devastation of pain and loss is infused with a near perfect quantity hopefulness. Peyton Parker contributes vocal harmonies that help to make the song soar. Even a broken heart still beats, and with each beat, there is one more opportunity for a different outcome. It is undeniably a sad song, and pain rarely paints a pretty picture, but the song demonstrates that a picture does not have to be pretty to be enjoyed. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, and on some levels, this is a beautiful song.
“Conversation at the Wedding” moves with a gentle waltz-like lilt, but it is doubtful that this song will be requested as the newlyweds first dance. Here, the heartbreak is made clear and laid bare. There is a profound sense of loss and despair that might be difficult to hear if it were not so gorgeously delivered. And even in the midst of all of the sadness, Latham manages some well placed culture references and even a wry joke or two.
“Anesthesia” promises an escape from pain, but the promises are as elusive as a drugged out dream. There is a story of elusive love mixed in with the foggy/half-awake doze of the lyrics. while musically the song builds to rousing gang-vocal refrain on which the song floats into oblivion. In addition to the gang vocal – which was recorded at Nashville radio station Lightning 100 – Kiely Schlesinger provideds additional vocals and producer Josh Morris plays the organ.
“The Frame” bookends a gentle sad song with an opening and closing clash of discordant notes. The lyrics follow a series of photographic metaphors through another ill-fated infatuation.
Devastation seems to be the central theme of “Cold Stones and Rubble”. The song is pushed by a casual twang (Haley Dreis played the fiddle here – as elsewhere on the record and she also contributed vocals to this track). Natural disasters and disasters of a more personal nature are what is in store. Once again, there is a glimmer of hope.However, this is not the hokey hope of easy answers and absolute salvation, but rather it is a genuine hope of finding the strength to push forward toward possibly better days.
“The Braver Man” is a twisting tale of love that likely would go wrong. Latham’s vocals – at once powerful and vulnerable – provide a perfect match for the aching lyrics of the song.
“Ginsberg” is a toe-tapping nearly epic tour-de-force. The song is quest for meaning that stops in on some of the most interesting truth-tellers of the past fifty years. John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and the beat poet mentioned in the title – have all been touchpoints for restless seekers of meaning in this life, but here in the middle part of the second decade of the new century the world is a different place, and these days it is hard to find a version of the truth that has not been reduced to a meme or a bumper sticker. The truth-tellers of this day and age are likely to be working a menial job to support themselves, but they are out there and they are worth seeking out. On this song in particular, Jon Latham proves himself to be one of those modern truth-tellers.
Real Bad News closes at a funeral – seems about right. But, “Conversation at the Funeral” may well deliver the best news of the entire album. The song – written about Jon Latham’s Grandfather – distills a lifetime of experiences and advice into a single moment at a graveside. It is ultimately a powerful song of the passing on of traditions more permanent that possessions. It is a perfect coda and summation of the album.