About the time it’s ready to take the turkey out of deep thaw is the time to start checking back to see what we may have missed in the year of music as the steady roll of new releases begins to slow down to a trickle and allows us to catch up. 2013 was such a bumper crop year for earnest, melancholic songwriters like Jason Isbell and John Moreland, our music stomachs were stretched in a way 2014 seemed it would never be able to fill. But some important projects have tried, and given us some new names to draw from when the mood is one where we enjoy drowning in sorrow.
I don’t expect you to recognize the name Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound. There’s no major effort underway at the moment to promote his music to the masses. Unless you’re clued into the right sectors of the Cincinnati music scene, his name is likely one of a stranger. But just as music worth hearing tends to do, it has slowly been bubbling up from word of mouth until some of those mouths have begun to speak about this record as one of the best music offerings all year.
A heartbreaker of an album, Saving Country Music headquarters has been spinning Arlo McKinley for a while now, but concerns for just how distressing and slow it was kept delaying any copy on it. It’s also a bit of a creeper, as slower albums can be. You aren’t going to spy its magic simply by skimming through iTunes previews. There’s no catchy hooks or sick beats to grab you by the scruff and make you listen. It has its way of sticking to your bones however, to where you find yourself favoring it over more upbeat fare, and craving it when awash in certain dour moods.
Arlo McKinley has a little bit of Sam Quinn (formerly of the Everybodyfields) in his voice, and a style that is not all too foreign to that region between old-school inspired country, and new-school infused folk rock. It’s the appreciation for the honesty of country songwriting without all the fluff and circumstance, fiddle and steel guitar of the discipline. This album is ten slow and deliberate gut punches with little mercy or sunny interludes. McKinley isn’t dabbling in anything here, he’s lowering his head, swinging away, and hoping you feel as miserable as the moments that inspired these songs, with minimal and tasteful musical hues shading his tear-soaked sketches.
Coming to this album with a country mindset, “Time In Bars” jumps off the track list as one of the takeaways, and so does “Sad Country Song,” even though its methodology of making a country song from other country songs has been done a few times before. When you think Arlo can’t get more depressing, he doubles down with a song like “This Damn Town” with its purposely harsh guitar, or the unbearable emptiness at the beginning of “Waiting For Wild Horses.”
McKinley’s ear for matching emotion with sound is quite skilled, even if his approach isn’t wholly original. Even the more upbeat-sounding numbers like “Don’t Need to Know” or the pounding final track “Dark Side of the Street” deliver a bravely vulnerable and depressing account of the life and times of this adept Ohio songwriter.
It takes courage to unburden your soul and air your personal frailties in the way Arlo McKinley has done in this album, and it takes insight and study to do it in a way that sounds so so good.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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