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Saturday, August 27, 2016

a home for the americana diaspora
August 20, 2016
Scott Foley
Our souls are a little older / But you can't tell we learned a thing / If there's twelve that god invited, we're thirteen / We're the last one to know it's over / And the first one to have to beg / We're the dog that crawled for miles on broken legs / We're the dregs
Justin Wells was a quarter of Kentucky's Fifth On the Floor, sharing vocals and songwriting duties with bandmates over the space of a handful of increasingly good releases.  Even with that abiding appreciation, Wells' debut solo record lands as an unanticipated achievement.  The cover of Dawn In the Distance features a beaten suitcase on a weathered wood floor next to a door - no indication if that luggage is coming or going.  Wells himself has commented that the road takes something away from folks who love to be at home.  On the flip side of the coin, people who thrive on the road leave something behind upon returning home.  This fragile balance shadows several of these new songs, stories of home and experience wisely and soulfully told.

As the title might suggest, "Going Down Grinnin'" rambles along good-naturedly with enough twang 'n bang to tangle your neckbeard:  I'll pass a paved road and wherever it goes / Give me a destination that nobody knows / I'll go poor and I'll go young / By the battered beat of a beat down drum.  Gospel harmonies float above chugging percussion and rubbery reverb guitar lines.  It's Wells' own "seize the day" proclamation, custom built for a dusty backroads bounce along potholes and ruts.

But Wells' songs tend to dive deeper than that, bubbling with thoughts and sentiments that are revelatory at times.  While maintaining a positive musical vibe, "Highway Less Taken" harbors a darker take on life between the ditches.  I guess it never made much sense on paper / Ever quarter you make is gone before it sees a dimeIf it was god's intention to make me better / I'd have some more to give than words that rhyme.  With the rest of Dawn In the Distance, it's impeccably produced and arranged, as steeped in dark country as anything from Fifth On the Floor, but with a full-hearted Memphis soul that was lacking from Wells' earlier stuff.

The bulk of Dawn came together in the wake of the dissolution of Wells' band, a challenging crossroads that found him touring with Matt Woods and continuing to put pen to paper like nothing had changed.  "Can't Break My Heart" permits another glimpse into Justin Wells' great potential as a country music writer.  With indelible pedal steel and a voice that's pure gravel, Wells vows to tilt against the windmills of reason and expectation.  You can take my guns / Take my pen away / But I've got a heart a little stronger than it was yesterday.

The quote that introduces this Episode is pulled from a piece that has largely defined and haunted my music week.  "The Dogs" is Dawn In the Distance's masterpiece, a cri de coeur that might tear a jagged hole in the pantheon of road songs.  I retreat somewhere and cover my wounds / And pray to god that the checkout's noon / If there's any luck left it'll be halfway clean.  It's a song that rivals White Buffalo at his most passionate, that satisfies a finicky pop ear as fully as Reckless Kelly, and carves apart the heart as fiercely as John Moreland.  Most importantly, it epitomizes the kind of heart-on-sleeve spirit that drives Justin Wells.  The man can sing about the valor of his working class family one moment, then cast a jaded eye at his own life choices as a struggling songwriter the next.  Give Dawn In the Distance a listen, then tell me that it doesn't drag you under its spell for at least the next week or two.

- Tallest Man on Earth, "Time of the Blue"  
single  (Merge, 2016)
- Tallest Man on Earth, "Rivers"  single  (Merge, 2016)  D
- Drive-by Truckers, "What It Means" American Band  (ATO, 2016)
- Massy Ferguson, "Dogbone" Run It Right Into the Wall  (Proper, 16)
- Left Lane Cruiser, "Chevrolet" Beck In Black  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
- Sara Rachele & the Skintights, "Ain't No Train" Motel Fire  (Angrygal, 16)  D
- Devil Makes Three, "Come On Up To My House" Redemption & Ruin  (New West, 16)
- Bad Livers, "How Dark My Shadows Grown" Delusions of Banjer  (Quarterstick, 92)
- Southern Culture on the Skids, "Dirt Road" Electric Pinecones  (Kudzu, 16)  D
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "The Dirt, the Bells & I" Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- Cody Jinks, "I'm Not the Devil" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)
- Kelsey Waldon, "False King" I've Got a Way  (Monkey's Eyebrow, 16)
- Uncle Tupelo, "No Sense In Lovin" Anodyne  (Sire, 93)
- Joe Purdy, "Cursin' Air" Who Will Be Next  (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Reckless Kelly, "Who's Gonna Be Your Baby Now" Sunset Motel  (No Big Deal, 16)
- Tony Joe White, "Hard To Handle" Tony Joe  (Warner, 70)
- Todd Snider, "Funky Tomato" Eastside Bulldog  (Aimless, 16)  D
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" Honest Life  (Mama Bird, 16)  D
^ Justin Wells, "The Dogs" Dawn In the Distance  (August, 16)  D
- Amanda Shires, "Harmless" My Piece of Land  (Shires, 16)
- Greensky Bluegrass, "Past My Prime" Shouted Written Down & Quoted  (Big Blue Zoo, 16)  D
- Kasey Chambers, "Guilty As Sin" Wayward Angel  (EMI, 04)
- Paper Bird, "To the Light" Paper Bird  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  C
- Big Shoals, "Only God Knows" Hard Lessons  (Big Shoals, 16)
- Lydia Loveless, "More Than Ever" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Coal Men, "Depreciate" Pushed To the Side  (Vaskaleedez, 16)
- Katy Goodman & Greta Morgan, "Bastards of the Young" Take It It's Yours  (Polyvinyl, 16)  D
- Evening Bell, "Tail Light" Dying Stars  (Evening Bell, 16)  D

And that's right.  Starting this Episode I'm dragging R&B into the 21st Century by making available a Spotify playlist for most of the songs above.  While you'll be lacking my pithy asides and sagelike insight, you'll at least have the music.  Next thing you know, they'll put a man on the moon ...

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