Having kicked his booze habit, Michael McDermott seems to have been living in the studio. He has a new solo album due next month, but before that comes this latest collaboration with wife Heather Horton (and featuring Will Kimbrough on guitar), a collection of character-driven songs that draw on the darker side of his recent past.
It opens in particularly shadowy, menacing style with "If I Had A Gun", acoustic guitar and mandolin gradually joined by fuller band accompaniment underpinning a narrative about a guy just out of prison and, promises of getting hooked up having not materialised, contemplating reverting to his old ways, his anger at the world burning inside as he sings "If I had a gun I'd blow them all to hell". There's an ex con too at the heart of the mandolin backed, folk-shaded Parolee, having paid his debut but finding it hard to fit in back home with the way people talk about and act around him.
The tempo lifts but the mood remains downcast for a Sprinsgteenesque "Pauper's Sky" with its snapshots of "vagrants in the steeples…lonely people in the empty taverns" and how when "you're all boxed in there's everywhere to lose, no chance to win." Adopting a shanty-like approach on its 'cast your troubles away' chorus, "The Gang's All Here" is another collection of portraits from the city's underbelly, of "the flawed and the favored, the outlaws, the savior", among them Guinevere who sleeps in the park and Danny who looks like "3 million bucks" now he's given up booze and hijacking trucks.
Horton takes over the lead for the sadness soaked slow waltz "Like You Used To" about a relationship hitting the rocks ("maybe if you stopped drinking, maybe our passion, would burn a fiery blue"), before the pace shifts again for the musically and lyrically upbeat scurrying folk-rock duet "Everything Is All I Want For You".
There's a vibrant rocking urgency too with "Santa Fe" which tells of a couple hightailing it out of town after some sort of incident, only for the woman, missing home, to slip away and go back. Indeed, outlaws and crime loom large throughout, "Henry McCarty" dropping the tonal register for a straighforward telling of story of Billy the Kid and his death at the hands of Pat Garrett, while the gradually swelling "Once Upon A Time" has the narrator who "burned everything and anyone I could find" regretting losing the one thing he cared for by not being the man she needed, a similar theme of love lost informing "This I Know" and its account of a man lost on a metaphorical seas "my compass…leading me astray". The album ends with its most emotionally powerful track, "Sirens", a brooding seven minute mid-tempo tale of a man who, orphaned as a child when his father killed his mother, has gone off the rails as he's grown and, pulled over for DUI and possession, gets sent down and, while inside, is dealt a bitter ironic blow by fate when his wife and child are killed by a gangbanger high in a stolen car, now cursed to be forever haunted by the sound of those sirens.
This is compelling storytelling, played out with strong melodies and heartfelt vocals from a man who may never have become the next Springsteen he was once touted, but whose fire has remained undiminished.
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