Sunday, December 03, 2023
Sunday, November 26, 2023
Sunday, November 19, 2023
Has it really only been eight years since Chris Stapleton unleashed Traveller? In retrospect, the record paved the way for the artists who have mounted a campaign vs mainstream “bro country”. Even as he continues to collect awards and accolades, becoming a ubiquitous and recognizable face in popular music, Stapleton seems to work from an admirable pool of humility and good taste. No one project has eclipsed the impact of that first solo venture, though everything he’s released has been as good as we’ve gotten from a country-affiliated artist.
His fifth full-length, Higher, is more satisfying than trailblazing, less a bar-raiser than a reminder of the consistent quality of Stapleton’s artistry. A generous 14 tracks, the collection addresses love in many of its earthly expressions, from moments of weakness to abiding gratitude, from commitment to good old lust. Cowritten with Miranda Lambert, “What Am I Gonna Do” finds the narrator dreading a life without the person they’ve come to cherish, even as they recognize that the relationship may be in the rear view mirror. The mid-tempo country number bears the soulful stamp we’ve come to expect from the genre’s strongest vocalist, solidly backed by his wife Morgane’s own lovely delivery: Been drinking everything on that shelf / Feels like I’m killing myself / You’re gone and it hurts like hell / Wishing I was anybody else. A classic ode to relationship, the ballad “It Takes a Woman” is a simple and unhurried gem, destined for repeated playing at weddings and anniversaries: Whenever I’m broken / Honey you heal me / When I’m in the dark / You are the light.
Co-produced by the Stapletons with the reliable David Cobb, Higher betrays few if any missteps in its thoughtfully reliable arrangement. Their projects have always been less about purity than about a melting pot of roots-related genres. “South Dakota” is a darker blues-rock with a spidery guitar line a’la Tony Joe White. The state’s tourism board would be wise to avoid the song for any future publicity campaign: Nights are long as the day is cold / Staying alive is getting old. Grittier tracks stand out on an LP that skews decidedly towards mid-tempo and ballads. At the album’s halfway point, the phenomenal “White Horse” serves as a disrupter, going all-in on arena-ready electric guitars and throat-shredding vocals, checking boxes for cliches and familiar tropes even as it stands among the year’s best singles: If you want a cowboy on a white horse / Riding off into the sunset / If that’s the kind of love you wanna wait for / Hold on tight girl, I ain’t there yet. Blessed by Paul Franklin’s pedal steel, “Crosswind” is a textbook trucking-as-life number that grants Stapleton’s band a bit of room to stretch and loosen.
Just three of Higher’s songs feature Chris Stapleton as sole writer. Many of the record’s co-writes credit a handful of contributors, though there is a directness and simplicity to most of the collection, hardly seeming like the work of several hands. While certain songs deliver more clever or poetic turns of phrase, Stapleton is more an exceptional singer than an outstanding lyricist. The steady percolating “The Fire” asks: I hear your name / Through the wind and rain / Why can’t you see / The fire inside me. The title cut praises another as: the sunrise that turns my night into day. But even these songs bear the singer’s unmatched vocal ability. While he’s best known for his shredding delivery on songs like “Cold” or “Tennessee Whiskey”, Stapleton ventures into a lovely, breathy upper register on that title track. The songs would be less remarkable if delivered by a lesser singer. Chris Stapleton is ultimately what makes them memorable.
Like Bonnie Raitt, Stapleton’s work is remarkable in its consistent quality and decency. Rather than struggle for new heights from album to album, he has largely remained in the same pocket he established eight years ago. As a body of work, Stapleton’s recordings with the Jompson Brothers, Steeldrivers, duets, one-off singles, and solo records, he rivals only Jason Isbell in terms of reliability. Another of Higher’s outstanding songs, “Mountains Of My Mind” is notable as the sessions' only moment featuring solely the man and his acoustic guitar. As such, it is striking in its vulnerability: There’s an empty table / And a well-worn wooden chair / Just waiting for me in the middle of nowhere. The country-soul of “Think I’m In Love With You” or “Loving You On My Mind” will merit more repeated spins, but it’s in this more subtle moment that the quiet brilliance of Chris Stapleton speaks most clearly.
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Sunday, November 05, 2023
We’ve spoken well of Martin’s previous work, especially 2014’s Dogs In the Daylight and his last record, One Go Around from 2017, both starkly deployed collections of thoughtful contemporary folk. Thank God strips down those already quiet arrangements, and amplifies instead the songwriter’s reflections on matters of meaning, compassion, and moments of connection. On “Quiet Man”, Martin sings: You can meet God in a cigarette just the same as in a sermon / And the devil’s always listening to those who are deserving. It’s in this spirit that he marches out into the dark, rain-damp streets on the lullaby waltz, “Walking”: If you stay up late enough / Stoplights play for no one / The dogs are gone to dream. These are songs from that night shift.
As the title might suggest, these songs are also steeped in traditionally religious language and mythology, though Martin’s perspective is far from orthodox. On “Garden” he imagines God as delighted with the messy consequences of the Eden episode: I want to find out for certain / If I’m here on purpose / As if knowing would save me / From the things that have made me / As if the mess that I’m making / Isn’t really a blessing. In The Gospel According To Jeffrey Martin, the emphasis is not on beliefs or convictions, but rather on our common seeking, the questions we share. “Paper Crown” imagines us all as searchers: It’s okay / Everybody feels the same way / Everybody’s too afraid to say / What they haven’t found. Answers are overrated.
Even as he walks the streets, even as he strums alone in his backyard shack, on Thank God We Left the Garden, Jeffrey Martin demonstrates a great amount of compassion. “Red Station Wagon” is a genuinely moving story of a young man’s regret for neglecting a friend’s tentative confessions: You feel like a child that the God of all forgot to name / Like he gave you a heart but he did not give you a place. There are lovesongs and moments of meeting on the sessions, along with an abiding recognition of that we’re all just fumbling our way through the same questions. On the beautiful “There Is a Treasure”, he finds liberation in the beautiful unimportance of our fleeting existence, a truth that might lead us to find compassion for every person’s story. For the sake of warmth, we are drawn to one other’s briefly flickering flame.
Fellow Portland artist Jon Neufeld adds atmospheric electric guitar on a few of these cuts, most of which are built around Jeffrey Martin’s understated acoustic picking or strumming. With a gruff but soulful voice like Nathaniel Rateliff, Martin chooses the rare moments to push his vocal beyond an intimate croon. His playing is never showy, rarely more than a bed for his lyrical delivery.
In last week's "review", we mentioned that Andrew Bryant's Prodigal began as a collection of demos that producer Bruce Watson encouraged the writer to flesh out with the help of a tremendous band. Jeffrey Martin apparently intended these unadorned recordings to serve as demos for something larger. Aside from Neufeld’s very selective guitar textures, we’re hearing Martin’s demos on Thank God, and after several passes through the collection I couldn’t imagine these songs in any other setting. Any additional noise might detract from the remarkable intimacy and breathtaking beauty he achieves.