Red Dog [Release date 30.10.15]
When asked what message the award winning author RJ Ellory had for his readers, he replied: ‘There is nothing so fragile, complex or fascinating as the human condition.’ And it’s that sense of wonder that anchors the observatory narratives of ‘Low Country’ by The Whiskey Poets.
Together with multi instrumentalist Martin Smith and platinum selling percussionist Hossam Ramzy, RJ and his Americana influenced outfit emphasize lyrics and melodies framed by solid arrangements.
Ellory’s earnest phrasing has echoes of Pete Atkin, though he’s smart enough to punctuate several mid-tempo outings with uplifting moments such as the tension building ‘The Lesson’ and the subtle horn arrangement and strong hook of ‘This Time’.
‘Low Country’ is a lyrical driven album given instrumental emphasis by former ELO bassist Martin Smith’s on pedal steel and assorted guitars – he also co-produced and engineered the album – while the band shape the melodies rather than dominate them.
The impressive opener ‘Black To Blue’ is effectively a template for a mid-paced album on which RJ’s world weary vocals draw the listener into his lyrics, on the back of a gentle drifting piano line and gently strummed guitar. It’s a spacious brush stroked arrangement that serves to highlight the emotional pull of his lyrics: “Black to Blue is what we do, each time we’re through, come on back to you, the things I don’t understand, seem greater than before, except that you were certain, now you seem unsure.”
‘Losing My Heart’ is the work of an inspired wordsmith whose word plays and cultural references are spun over an acoustic whirl and a Paul Simon style Latino percussive backdrop. If the hook doesn’t quite match the verse, he does enough to engage us in with his poetic lyrics: “Kerouac and Tennessee read poems from the balcony, tell you that your life just fell apart.” Then there’s: “Hindsight is a bitter pill, wisdom seems to make you ill, memories come alive with each new day.”
And it’s a combination of RJ’s memories and imagination that fills the 11 track album with his poetic cadence.
He gets low down and funky on the full band work-out of ‘Ghost Of My Religion’, complete with harmony vocals and an enveloping hook -while he cleverly intertwines his music and words over the insistent shuffle beat of ‘The One And Only’.
The band rocks out on the lyrically dark ‘The Lesson’, which could almost be an excerpt from one of his books: ““Came the federal man with a bitter heart ’cause he’d seen it all before, and he saw the corpse and he walked the line from the railroad to the shore. And he saw the gun and he saw the blood and the signals in the dirt, said he knew how it all went down before the boy could say a word.”
The ironic ‘Some People’ is a pedal steel-led poppy melody, while the Americana feel of ‘To The Low Country’ doesn’t quite make the emotional connection it aims for. The narrator ponders a failed relationship over an aching pedal steel and tasteful backing that suggests more than the song actually delivers.
‘Shines On Through’ is a contemplative and sombre acoustic ballad that provides a low key ending, but it leaves us in no doubt as to the album’s lyrical depth: “Seen my frustration, my loss of foundation, quietly dissolving in time.”
RJ successfully transposes his inherent writing ability to music and as a result ‘Low Country’ is a beguiling, subtly crafted album only a few hooks short of pushing The Whiskey Poets into the vanguard of Euro-Americana. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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