REVIEW: Colter Wall (Self-Titled Album)

LifeInASong_UK

On our shores this week, with gigs supporting fellow young starlet Brent Cobb all over the UK, you have to hear Colter Wall.

The cover to his first full-length album depicts a chap in a hat smoking and thinking, like Rodin sculpting a member of the country music community. The guy can be any age between 21 and 61, and is very handsome; above him is the name COLTER WALL in a fun typeset. Just by looking at it, it’s a fantastic product, but what lies inside the grooves?

From the Canadian country scene that brought you Neil Young, Colter Wall has already been reviewed favourably by someone who has followed a few young men. ‘He sings and writes songs in ways seemingly lost in time,’ said musical yogi Rick Rubin. Much like John Fulbright a few years ago, Colter writes songs that could have been recorded in 1935, 1965 or 1995.

It’s another hit album for Dave Cobb, fast becoming the Rick Rubin of this century (need I remind you Dave produces Stapleton, Isbell, Sturgill and worked on the Southern Family project last year?).

Thirteen Silver Dollars starts off in a dropped-tuned guitar before a timeless deep voice comes in, apparently coming from the body of a 21-year-old Canadian, singing about gunfire. It’s an amazing opening track and one of the songs of the year, which starts to stomp halfway through. It is as if Rick’s old buddy Johnny Cash has been revived, and that’s as big a compliment as I can write.

The sense of being part of country heritage on tracks like Codeine Dreams (‘Why wait around and die?’ to a backing of faraway slide guitar and close-up acoustic), and Motorcycle, which zips along like a song on the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider, places Colter in the same musical tree as Gram Parsons (check the pedal steel!) and outlaws like Willie and Waylon.

Robby Turner, who has played with Waylon Jennings, is a brilliant choice of sideman for the electric guitars; Cobb takes some of those parts assuredly. Sometimes it’s best just to sit back and let the country wash over you. The lyrics can come later, but what Cobb is brilliant at (he has won plaudits and awards) is finding a texture upon which the lyrics can sit. He bakes the cake, and your Stapletons, Isbells or Colters put the icing and the cherry on top. I’d be hard-pressed to name a better producer (Rick Rubin excepted) working in America today.

You Look to Yours is one of those cakes. Set (the song, not the cake…) in Saskatoon, a girl who is ‘beaming, bold and beautiful, higher than the moon’ leaves Colter ‘too soon’ and makes him ‘blue’. She also advises him not to trust politicians. In the second verse, Colter is in Nashville chatting to a girl whose lips are ‘reserved for Jim Beam…yet to dull her tongue, it seems’. The heavy rhyme scheme (every line of the verse rhymes with one another) increases the comedy of Colter’s ‘earthly mission’ to find a woman. The honky-tonk piano comes in after the second chorus, perfect accompaniment to down a whiskey. (I wrote this at 9am and I was tempted!) Happily, the third verse sees Colter in Virginia where he finds a sweetheart and doesn’t have to hear the putdowns of the chorus.

Kate McCannon is ‘the single’ – as if Dave Cobb produces songs like Jay Joyce or Joey Moi produce songs!! – which is another story set to music (so far, so country). If only I didn’t visualise Kate McKinnon, the star performer from Saturday Night Live, when I heard this lament in A minor.

Snake Mountain Blues, a song written by Townes van Zandt, rattles along with a soft shuffle backing Colter’s lament (‘it’s calling me home’), while Transcendent Ramblin’ Railroad Blues has him departing (from the earth I think). ‘Light my cigarette, make my bed somewhere beneath the stars’ is what he sings, with no reluctance at all. Bald Butte, at six minutes and whose title refers to the place where Colter wants to be buried when he dies, is a little epic in C major.

The second verse of Fraulein (the German word for ‘Missy’) is sung by a non-Colter voice belonging to Tyler Chiders, who joins Colter’s despair at being unable to forget a woman ‘on the banks of the old river Rhine’. What an amazing idea to cover an old country tune, written by Lawton Williams; it conjures a whole short story from the point of view of an old GI from the 1940s having a short dalliance with a German girl. A cynic would say this is a pull towards a future German fanbase, but I’d tell you to suck an egg.

W.B.’s Talkin is an interlude, the first I’ve heard on a country album. A mock-radio show narrated with pauses in all the right/wrong places by Colter (‘The Old Soul….Radio Show’), which is very meta, the track refers to his 2015 release and then sets up the second side as a train pulls away into the distance.

Colter is on it, and the destination is wherever he wants to go.

Jonny Brick

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