CD Review: Left Arm Tan – Alticana (Left Arm Tan, 2013)
Austin gets the press, but Fort Worth, quietly living in the glitzy shadow of Dallas high-rises, is the quirky sibling who’s cowtown heritage provides a unique sensibility without an overweening claim to hipness. So too for this Fort Worth quartet, whose second full album of Americana is as deeply appealing as it is unassuming. Left Arm Tan (the name is an overt reference to Wilco’s “Monday,” but more easily ascribed to the road-trip worthiness of their music) released their first album, Jim, in 2010, and a follow-up EP, Thurm, in 2012, picking up college, alternative and European airplay despite limited touring. In their late-30s and early-40s, the members of LAT have been through the grinding miles of year-round club-gigs, and chosen instead to settle into full-time day jobs that provide time to write and record, and play shows within a day or two’s reach.
Their careers leave them time to focus intently on songwriting and studio craft, the latter complemented on this outing by producer Salim Nourallah. The band’s country-rock foundation hasn’t changed from their self-produced releases, but Norallah’s touch (or simply their growing comfort in the studio) lets the new songs breathe more deeply. Where their earlier performances could feel rushed, as if the songs had been learned in front of uncertain bar patrons, their new studio work has the confidence of a band that knows they can hold your attention. The album opens with a typically catchy hook, “The radio’s selling tales of our unrest,” and as the societal observations turn into personal declarations the music escalates in parallel from guitar-and-voice to rock ‘n’ roll as the singer admits his real reasons for writing. You’ll find yourself humming along within the first minute, and singing the refrain the second time around.
Vocalist Troy Austin and guitarist Daniel Hines write lyrics that thread a line between personal moments, broader observations and images that complement both the internal thoughts and the external connections. There’s a twangy, almost mystical romanticism to several songs, suggesting Chris Isaak on “Black Dress,” and shading darker on “Headlights.” The latter opens with the striking lyric, “I dug a well in the pit of my heart and I named it after you,” and though the well eventually runs dry, the song turns melancholy rather than bitter. There’s a bevy of songs about longing for, budding, bending and broken relationships, each with a memorable setting and many highlighted by pithy observations and striking images. This is an accomplished album from a band whose considerable raw talent has found refined expression in the hands of an outside producer.