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Sunday, March 25, 2018

ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
March 25, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Bloggers can be passionate, dedicated fans of the music we write about.  They can also be close-minded, cut-and-paste hacks, but that's a subject for another time ...  It's a personal thing.  We like what we like, and we're willing to go to bat for an artist in whom we believe, for no other reason than to help spread the gospel.  The best artists will recognize that it's a reciprocal relationship.  Regular listeners will recognize the stuff that falls into this category for me; acts I tend to review from album-to-album, to support from year-to-year.

Back in September, I began to get emails from Daniel with Left Arm Tan, each featuring a new single from the Fort Worth outfit.  Each was a musical promissory note in advance of a rumored record to be released at a later date.  And each was better than the last.  Now that full nine-song project is just over the horizon, scheduled wherever music matters on April 6.  Just as importantly, Left Arm Tan has chosen to make its new stuff available first to followers of Routes & Branches.

El Camino is the sound of a band building on what's gone before, growing in new directions to expand the reach of their sound.  Granted, Left Arm Tan's sound has been perfectly fine to date, from Jim to Thurm, Alticana and 2016's Lorene.  Those early albums introduced a fully formed groove that wed Texas roots with an aggressive alt.country edge.  More recently, the band has sharpened that sound, creating some distance between themselves and countless other workingclass acts scratching and clawing in a notoriously crowded pack.

The difference has been in the songwriting.  While I likened Alticana and Lorene to Reckless Kelly, Sons of Bill and Will Hoge, Left Arm Tan was beginning to establish itself as a roadtested act to which we could compare other up-and-comers.  Musical ideas became better defined, and arrangements were sharper and more to-the-point, with lyrics that showed some smarts and plenty of personality.  Songs like "69 Reasons", "Freedom Bus" and "Blacktop Blues" were among my year-end favorites, striking that perfect chord between melody and abandon.

With a name like El Camino, you'd be right to expect to be run down by a couple diesel-fueled numbers.  "Looking at the World Through a Windshield" allows the band to cut loose, to open up the throttle on a tune about a man inheriting his father's addiction to the open road.  The honky-tonk cut is about as loose as we've heard Left Arm Tan get, highlighted by a reckless pitch-perfect duel between electric guitar and pedal steel.  The CD's title track showcases the work Left Arm Tan have put into their instrumental craft: It's a long way down from Tulsa to San Antone / I let the highway sound ease my troubled soul / I've got two loves driving me home / Don't fail me now El Camino.  It's a near perfect piece, evocative of a free ride along the open road.

Much of El Camino simply finds Left Arm Tan staying in their lane, just doing it even better.  My give a damn just broke, sings Brian Lee, on a song that's delivered like a take-no-prisoners call to tattooed arms.  "Give a Damn" lays down a hard 'n heavy tribal beat, along with sharp guitars and a a watertight backing chorus, a musical force of nature that catches the listener in a hundred mile-an-hour sawdust hurricane.

You'll find a bit more dark on this CD than you might expect.  "Mistress Freedom" slinks along on a bluesy rubberband bass, sounding like nothing else the band has released to date:  Freedom ain't free / you could say she owns me ... Taking risks ain't the same as being brave.  A sold-my-soul fiery guitar solo ushers in an otherworldly gospel backing chorus.  You can also toss "Shortcut to Oblivion" and "It's Too Late" into the "darker ride" bucket.  The latter is a minor key stomp with low-strung guitar and a chorus like Buddy Holly's wicked brother:  I put the hell in this town like it's going out of style / Now it's time to get the hell out of here for a while.

It's also obvious that the band has woodshedded on those backing vocals, which populate the album like a chorus of roadside angels.  They also serve to emphasize Left Arm Tan's remarkable ear for an unforgettable melody.  With such an immediate sonic appeal, several of these new songs may drive between your ears for days. El Camino's highpoint comes with "Best I Never Had" - a tune that deserves a home on radio.  It'll certainly be around down the homestretch as one of my year-end favorites.  Not one of the record's more musically adventurous moments, it's simply what Left Arm Tan does best.  It's verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus, with pieces held in place by a wonderfully sticky melody and an arrangement that shows the band deep in their pocket.

In sharing El Camino with me, guitarist-vocalist Daniel Hines acknowledged, "We took a lot of chances and stretched the songwriting and production".  Which doesn't mean that you'll mistake the new project as a new collection of bangerz from Flaming Lips.  Left Arm Tan have just released one satisfying record after another, each more confident than the last, and every one building on and expanding upon what they do well.  And in a time when so many acts sound like so many others, it can be a thrill to follow a band that is committed to sounding like the best version of itself.

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