Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Album Review: Chuck Ragan - Till Midnight

Album Rating: B
If you would have told me in 2001 that one of the masterminds behind the ceaselessly gritty Hot Water Music would release something like Till Midnight, a record so soaked in soul, roots and antique shop dust, sometime during the second prime of his career, I would have laughed right in your face and gone on to gloat in my self-assured victory to the tune of "Remedy."  But here we are, over a decade later, and Chuck Ragan is again proving himself to be one of the most successful bilingual artists around, equally fluent in both Americana and punk rock, and still as gruff as ever. Till Midnight  is a powerfully intimate affair, like being welcomed into Ragan's home with open arms to sit on the living room floor and watch him play. You can almost feel the hardwoods shake beneath you as the aged boots stomp in rhythm, all to the long lost pulse of rock n' roll.

There's something deeply profound about a post-hardcore forefather almost completely renouncing electric instruments (the bass and sporadic electric guitar often being the only exceptions), as Ragan does on Till Midnight.  It's like he's thrown away all of his possessions and moved into a dark mountain cave, where he can, at last, think quietly and let his beard grow.  Unlike many, Ragan's mind ages well with this hypothetical solitude, and the record's stripped-down approach, while keeping much of it at a solid low simmer, still manages to conjure up an impressive sense of resilience, completely without the aid of liberal distortion.

"Vagabond" is one of many rolling slow-burners built upon a punk foundation, yet upheld by rustic scaffolding.  The bass guitar may bounce with ease, but the dark chords underneath the wailing violin in the bridge construct an atmosphere not unlike the most memorable cuts from A Flight and A Crash.  In fact, most of Till Midnight maintains these classic Hot Water Music minor sixths, albeit in much subtler form.  The introductory chord progression on "Revved" could easily be found at numerous points throughout the Ragan/Wollard discography, but without the heavy coat of crunch, the fragile man behind the rasp is unmasked and can finally be examined in the spotlight.

"I'll be good to you my baby / I'll do my damnedest to make mistakes but once," Ragan promises resolutely on "Wake With You," in tandem with a firm belief that "You and I alone is all I'll ever dream / And where I need to be," on the following "You and I Alone."  Delicate love songs never were best-suited for the Orgcore throat (Ragan's being no exception), but Till Midnight's sappy drivel in particular finds a way to actually put some "umpf" in the categorically vulnerable.  To hear a man like Ragan, who sounds like he was force-fed gravel and repeatedly kicked in the throat for decades, reduced to an acoustic guitar and his pure, naked feelings, but still somehow managing to sing positively—well, there's no denying the power behind it.  Till Midnight finds comfort in openness, and cleansing in exposure.  Time away from the camouflage of distortion has done Ragan well; he's never sounded happier.

Track List:
1. Something May Catch Fire
2. Vagabond
3. Non Typical
4. Revved
5. Bedroll Lullaby
6. Gave My Heart Out
7. Wake with You
8. You and I Alone
9. Whistleblower's Song
10. For All We Care

Album Stream
Official Website

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