Like opening an old chest long ago stashed away in an attic or crawl space and ages forgotten, but once it’s cracked and the odoriferous concoctions emanating from its bowels mix with the memories tied to the contents in an overwhelming waff almost too much to behold, the yawning of Colter Wall’s vocal aperture is like the spontaneous appearance of a hoary portal into the past where the present day escapes the mind and you find yourself amidst the ghosts of a by-gone epoch.
Colter Wall’s voice is truly a thing to behold. No descriptor or accolade employed to convey its powers of conjuration can be accused of embellishment. The only detriment is that future generations will be burdened to find fresh adjectives to describe it, while us currently present in its audience have the unfair opportunity to attempt to recount its effects while it’s still being presented in its nascent state.
Yet with all the reverie about this 21-year-old’s tonal qualities, the full breadth of the Colter Wall experience is amply aided by a visual component. With the prevalence of affected voices and phony put-ons—especially in the parts of music reflective of the past—it’s easy to cast off Colter as simply a bad Johnny Cash gimmick if you’re one who’s prone to be dubious of what you perceive as adulterated styles. If you see Colter sing however, you can tell that in the way he bears down on every word, how his eyes naturally shut as if he’s surrendering himself as a vessel to the words as opposed to autonomously offering them of his own volition, there is no question this scraggly ginger-headed kid from snowy Saskatchewan is nothing else but what you hear.
This is all impressive, enthralling, perhaps even daunting to behold since Colter’s singing is so thick with originality, yet hauntingly familiar. But music is not a skills competition, or solely a display of natural virtue, despite this prevalent misnomer spreading throughout popular culture and reality television. Without something to say, without that morsel of emotion and connectivity to the human experience, Colter’s notation is just a noise, inescapably interesting as it may be.
Styles and dialects and phonetics change, but the eternal themes that stir the soul remain, and it’s the seamless tie to what Colter sings about and how he sings it that makes the experience something beyond music. It is the ability to introduce the element of time into the mix, not just as a texture, but as a vehicle for transporting perspective to places and situations far beyond the listener’s current coordinates, and deliver them into a previous era. Virtual reality doesn’t have shit on what Colter Wall can concoct with with the character influences hearkened from Guthrie and Hank, and held in that much higher regard when delivered by what sounds like the narration of human history itself.
Colter Wall is more folk than country, with murder ballads and harrowing hobo tales being at the heart of his songs. But the question is how to take those influences and makes them relevant to the present day. Some may think even suggesting this exercise would be like a sacrilege from the sheer power of what Colter Wall is able to accomplish here through his neotraditional styling, but to emulate Woody Guthrie, you can’t just be a reenactor, you have to be an originator like Woody was, no matter how wowing your voice might be. The modern day Woody and Hank are not those that reinterpret their songs in their own image, they’re people like Jason Isbell, John Moreland, and Evan Felker who are making the same impact, only in the present day.
The themes of Colter Wall’s music are timeless, but some of the references and modes feel dated. This is not a burden, but a virtue to those old souls who cling to music that sounds old to feel a sense of familiarity into an otherwise cold and complex modern world. It also renders the music as niche. Deprecated language and dated references are what some seek out in their audio enjoyment. But singing about murdering your girlfriend and hopping trains will only get you so far. Then again, some are perfectly content not venturing afield from what feels familiar.
Colter Wall’s voice is an incredible asset, but with that also comes a responsibility. Can Colter Wall, like Woody before him, write and sing the songs that do much more than entertain those in their time, and go on to be the building blocks in the foundation of creative expression for a generation beyond its own? That doesn’t seem entirely possible for even the top songwriters of our present time. But they aren’t blessed with the pipes that Colter Wall was. Neither was Woody.
Dave Cobb was an obvious pick to handle producer duties for this debut, self-titled release to follow a highly-acclaimed, yet hidden EP from Colter Wall, Imaginary Appalachia. But was he the best pick? What is the Colter Wall sound? As much praise has been lumped on Dave Cobb, at times his output has been hit and miss if we’re being honest. Sometimes his fast, cut-it-live approach doesn’t work for every artist, especially younger ones who may need a more extended demo and workshop process to find the best material and develop it properly. With Colter’s approach, perhaps a George Reiff, or Ray Wylie Hubbard would know how better to interpret Colter Wall songs to the rest of the world. This is music that could be flattered by old cow bones clanging together, and the 60 cycle hum of amps on the verge if going on the fritz—a more dirty, gritty approach, with more space and wetness in the signals to enhance the vibe and imbibe the imagination.
But Dave Cobb did the best he could within his Dave Cobb parameters, which was basically to do little to nothing, and let Colter and his guitar stand alone for a sizable amount of the duration. There really is no Dave Cobb on this release, which was probably his best move.
The magic Colter Wall evokes is immediate, at least for those who are looking for that particular flavor of magic. But let’s not allow that to blind us from the fact that this self-titled album feels like a side step from the EP, or that something like this will struggle to reach the broad audience Colter Wall’s incredible natural attributes deserve. Colter has our attention. Now, what is he going to do with it that is more than mere entertainment interpretive of older styles? That may be an unfair question to ask of most 21-year-old performers. But with Colter Wall, with that voice, with the wisdom that is hard not to recognize behind his eyes, it’s an imperative one.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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