Having managed to avoid it for years, I was recently stuck into a social situation that required me to listen to top-40 country radio for several hours. As a self-expressed fan of “old country,” it would have at times been easy for me to mistake what I was hearing for a generic pop station – nothing I would call crooning, nary a twang of pedal steel to be heard, and not much to inspire a tear in a beer. New country seems far removed from the Grand Ole Opry roots of its genre, with glittering rhinestones, wailing outlaws, and big bar hair giving way to American Idol starlets and half-brained frat-boy-esque hootin’ and hollerin’. The boozing is still there, but the motivation seems lost. If today’s country stars have stories of hard living to share, why do I have trouble believing them?
If you’re like me and have ever lamented the shortage of modern country music worth crying about, then Daniel Romano may be the breath of fresh country air you need. A former member of alt-rock band Attack in Black, Romano as a solo artist has been making roots music since his 2010 folk-country debut Workin’ For The Music Man. His follow-up album Sleep Beneath The Willow was long-listed for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, and further established Romano as a country purist wearing his musical obsessions – George, Hank, Waylon, and Buck – and his broken heart on his pearl-buttoned sleeve. This is not music your Craven campground neighbors will blast from their truck speakers while shotgunning beers; this is music to sip rye to while sitting in your shitty, lonely kitchen, petting an old dog and thanking it for not running away like your woman.
Oh his latest effort, the self-produced Come Cry With Me, Romano has gone whole-hog with his mission to bring back the honky-tonk sound he loves. But don’t let the Nudie suit he wears on the cover (and on stage) fool you – the music doesn’t come across as satire, and Romano doesn’t seem out to revive old country and western music so much as to reinvigorate those fans who, like him, feel something’s been missing. Romano is like a film geek with a Super 8 camera, someone who picked up an old toy and is clearly just having lots of fun with it. But the backbone of Romano’s work isn’t about aping a bygone sound – its about good, solid songwriting and storytelling. Come Cry With Me has plenty of both.
The album is driven by the slow trot of drum brushes and shuffling acoustic guitar, and Romano is determined to put an ache in your chest from the outset with “Middle Child,” a momma-why tale of parental abandonment. Wonderfully melancholy melodies anchor each tune, and Romano delivers them with a nasal and impressively low-ended croon. As he looks for new ways to tell an old story, Romano describes himself as a “Two Pillow Sleeper” and an actor just practicing a sad role on “I’m Not Crying Over You,” whose hook will rattle around under your Stetson for days. A backing harmony of female voices and a wandering fiddle lend a dreamy and time-tested quality and, of course, there is the classic twang of the pedal steel guitar. We also get the expected male-female duet in “Just Between You And Me” (after all, What Would Conway Do?). The album may suffer from a lack of variety, but the one really diverse track, “Chicken Bill” – an uptempo troubadour yarn in the vein of Johnny Cash – is a low point that comes off as a bit too silly.
Several moments shine above others on this record, and they seem to occur when Romano loses a bit of his self-awareness and moves off the established path trod by his folk heroes. On “He Lets Her Memory Go (Wild),” Romano steps back and lets a jangly blues guitar riff be the crescendo for heartbreak. The standout track is his live closer “A New Love (Can Be Found),” a stripped-down acoustic ballad with a hard-earned dash of hope. As a whole, the 10 tracks of Come Cry With Me deliver on their promise, dusting off an if-it-ain’t-broke aesthetic and giving a record that will hold up to repeated spins, particularly on those days when you just might be yearning for a bit of good ol’-fashioned heartache.
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Record DetailsReleased: 2013
Record Label: Normaltown