Album Review – Ian Noe’s “River Fools & Mountain Saints”
Who knows what motivates the musical gluttons for punishment who like to push the envelope of emotional roiling and upheaval so far that it nearly veers into the realm of outright masochism? But in American roots music, the need to satisfy ever-increasing appetites for more gut punching and ventricle-tugging moments will lead you right to the well of Kentucky’s Ian Noe as one of the few if only sources to quench that insatiable thirst.
The intensity of the writing and delivery of an Ian Noe song is virtually unparalleled—scowling as he sings. Part Dylan and Prine, part hillbilly from the dark holler, his new album River Fools and Mountain Saints underscores this virile brew of influences, while also offering a more expansive musical experience than his 2019 debut Between The Country. The first album was only country music in cousin, and this new one is similarly guilty. But it’s all Kentucky, and it’s also all very, very good.
Ian Noe is a master craftsman of character and setting, manifesting men and women that feel as real as rain in the mind’s eye, and casting them in scenarios that make you materially and emotionally invested in them, all within a three minute interval. It’s not all Debbie Downer music. One early song “River Fool” is about a rollicking guy drunk on mountain wine hunting, fishing, picking guitar, and enjoying life. But when a country song about coming home to find your lover has left in “Lonesome as It Gets” turns out to be one of the happier-sounding songs on an album, you know you’re in for a harrowing experience.
Maybe some of the cast of River Fools and Mountain Saints are recurring, maybe they’re not. Some of their stories may also be intertwined. You can tell Ian Noe has been exploring America’s Vietnam era recently, because it comes up on multiple occasions. You’re introduced to Tom Barrett of the 21st Platoon early on. Maybe it’s him, or someone else who shows up as a prisoner of war eating foul and foreign food and fighting with rats in “POW Blues.”
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire record is born off the simple, fingerpicked melody and background organ of “Ballad of a Retired Man,” where a Vietnam vet and former road worker resolves himself to his fate in a way that makes us all ponder our mortality and the passage of time in an inescapably unsettling, but still strangely gorgeous and inviting manner.
Ian Noe does have a rather unavoidable Dylan-esque delivery that may even be more pronounced on this new album, including the way some of the melodies and structures are quite simple. Though unlike Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Noe rarely strains to rhyme, nor does he deliver nonsense lines for rhyming’s sake. Ian is more calculating and purposeful, even if some of the sounds of River Fools and Mountain Saints also remind you of the “Dylan goes electric” era in moments, along with a little fuzzy psychadelic folk rock, and maybe even a little Exile on Main Street in the opening track for added texture.
Ian Noe is a folk artist whose songs start with an acoustic guitar and bite marks on a pencil. But the production of River Fools by Andrija Tokic makes sure the audience is never lulled into complacency and the density of the work isn’t too tough to digest, even if the sounds are more borrowed than invented. When a lonesome horn comes in about 2/3rds of the way through “One More Night,” it’s just about more than your soul can handle. “Burning Down The Prairie” gives you some serious North Mississippi Hill Country Blues vibes.
But what makes River Fools and Mountain Saints distinctly Ian Noe is the way the Kentucky experience is imbued throughout the album. Sorry to disappoint, but “Strip Job Blues 1984” is not about dancing girls in tassels. It’s about harrowing trips down steep grades in heavy trucks. Then “Appalachian Haze” hits you, challenging “Ballad of a Retired Man” for how much it impinges on your emotional fortitude. Though the electrification of certain songs on the album is appreciated, Ian Noe sure is elevated when it’s all stripped down to bare bones words and rhyme.
No, Ian Noe is not part of the Kentucky country music resurgence alongside Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and others trying to challenge the mainstream and re-instill it with some meaningful substance. He’s too pure for all that nonsense. He’s for those who want to dig even deeper, and get down to the kernel of sincere emotions that the best of songwriters mine.
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March 29, 2022 @ 8:30 am
It’s such a satisfying feeling when I have an album built up in my mind for years and when it finally comes out it’s even better than expected. Song diversity and production are out of this world on this whole album. Excellent work.
March 29, 2022 @ 9:19 am
Agreed! I’ve been following the singles as they trickle out on my Release Radar each Friday on Spotify and each week has been better than the last. So happy that the final album is this damn good. I love it.
March 29, 2022 @ 9:13 am
I think Ian Noe is one of those artists you are either get or don’t. Man, if you get him he delivers in every way. This album is fantastic. I’ve listened to the whole thing a couple times now. The first album may have a couple more catchy hooks, but as time goes on, we will see. This is just awesome music.
April 26, 2022 @ 5:24 pm
I know you wrote this comment weeks ago, but I just want to strongly agree with you, even if belatedly. I loved the first album, and it took me a moment to really hear this one. For me River Fools just didn’t seem to have the one song that would draw you in and open up the rest of the album for you—like Raving Bomb in Between the Country. But now I love it. I am playing River May Flood, pretty much on repeat. There’s something about the dreamy quality of the music and the specificity of the lyrics and the anticipation of a disaster that will surely come and probably won’t quite kill you that is just so sad and lovely at the same time. I hope he hangs in there well enough to make a living so he can keep on writing. If he can build a fan base like John Prine’s of people who will go anywhere to see him and who appreciate his originality and singular voice, he might have a long career. I sure hope so.
March 29, 2022 @ 9:16 am
If something tops this for album of the year I will be surprised.
Truly an excellent album. I love the diversity of sound. I have listened to ballad of a retired man at least a dozen times and can’t get enough of it.
March 29, 2022 @ 12:23 pm
Second to the anticipation of this album’s release was your review, in my mind. Both hit better than expected. This dude is setting himself up to be the second coming of Prine (possibly the tragedy to Prine’s comedy.) Ian is true poet and I thank you for covering his work.
March 29, 2022 @ 1:41 pm
I didnt think anything could have topped “Between the Country”. You always hear of a sophomore slump, but this album is unbelievably great. John Prine is my favorite of all time, and this man might be the second coming. I will be pleasantly surprised if another album this year tops this…
March 29, 2022 @ 1:52 pm
He’s even rocking the Prine-stache these days lol
David: The Duke of Everything
March 29, 2022 @ 2:22 pm
Well I loved river fool. So I will give this a listen. I think I will like it.
March 29, 2022 @ 4:04 pm
Tremendous album, and the full band performances that now accompany it are top notch. Get out and see him if he comes near you. It’s well worth it.
He pretty well admitted that “Ballad of a Retired Man” was written for his grandfather, who recently passed – good luck stomaching that one any easier with that in mind, btw.
Entire thing flows so well, and is so well written. “Pine Grove”, “Lonesome as it Gets”, and “One More Night” were standout tracks for me. “Ballad” is there too, but it’ll firmly be in that “Elephant” category of day ruiners.
Agree with Trig that he definitely leans in a little more to the Dylan-esque sound (and era, on the production) for this one, but the songs are so unapologetically eastern Kentucky that it’s impossible to knock the authenticity.
Jerry Clower's Ghost
March 29, 2022 @ 4:43 pm
Great review on a great record
March 29, 2022 @ 4:51 pm
I’m liking it. But. . . It was a bit like when I listened to Tyler Childers album after Purgatory. I was a bit disappointed as it wasn’t as hard hitting, no gut punches. So far I’m finding this new Ian Noe album with a similar sentiment. No gut punches. But I’m still listening, and I do like it.
March 29, 2022 @ 11:02 pm
Childers followed up one of the greatest albums ever recorded with one of the worst, most I listenable albums ever puked out. Noe definitely didn’t pull a Childers with his second record. I did fear it though, but I think he managed to follow up with another killer album in his own well crafted and perfected style
March 30, 2022 @ 4:30 pm
I wasn’t worried about that happening in this case because Ian hasn’t been unnecessarily propped up by self indulgent pricks (I’m a Sturg fan btw). Tyler’s biggest failure (IMO) is that he didn’t scrounge every dime to record albums before he got mainstream recognition. He cranked out so many good tunes between Bottles and Bibles and Purgatory that I’m afraid will never get the proper studio treatment. Inviting a wannabe savant into the booth to live out his fantasies and mid life crisis really seems to have put a damper on Tyler’s creative output. He needs to take a page out of Stu’s book and get back to his roots. I’d love a pandemic-style album from him. He’s got enough back catalog to crank out an album this evening and pull off a grass roots release before the end of April
March 31, 2022 @ 3:11 am
Tyler has a couple albums cut from that era that he never released. I’d expect to have them come out someday as lost material or something. Can’t wait for that day.
March 29, 2022 @ 7:57 pm
Just discovered Ian Noe, pleasantly surprised to find this (accurate) review.
Lotta the songs sound kinda the same, but when they’re all this good, I’m not going to complain.
March 29, 2022 @ 10:59 pm
I had low expectations since his first album was so perfect (as was Childers’ Purgatory, then he followed it up with absolute garbage), but this album wins album of the year and cements Noe as the best in the business as far as I’m concerned. He’s everything Dylan couldn’t be and all of his songs I’ve heard in a past life. Another 10/10 album. I repeat, he’s the best in the business. Noe’s gloomy songs make me smile
March 30, 2022 @ 3:00 am
I don’t get the digs at Tyler childers there’s nothing wrong with his second album at all.
I also laughed at the review comment that unlike dylan Ian doesn’t strain to rhyme. Nothing at all wrong with bobs lyrics isn’t he the only songwriter too win the Nobel prize for literature?
I love this album as much as I did the first album he’s a phenomenal talent.
March 30, 2022 @ 7:23 am
Hey, you can have huge respect for Dylan like I do, and still recognize that at times he throws ridiculous lines into songs just to rhyme them, and because he’s Dylan and can get away with it. It’s part of his charm.
John R Baker
March 30, 2022 @ 8:37 am
A whole lot of Dylan is also totally indecipherable by the obscurity of the metaphors as well.
The only time I have found Noe obscure is in “One More Night.” It seems like it’s kind of a science fiction thing or maybe based on a novel he read. It seems like it should be part of a song cycle with his unrecorded apocalyptic masterpiece “the Last Stampede” rather than a stand alone. It’s till a good song but I’m not clear on how it fits in with the others.
March 30, 2022 @ 9:40 am
You read it correctly.
Song is about a “funeral procession through space”, per the author.
March 31, 2022 @ 10:08 am
The 2nd Childers album was awful to me. The reasons it is being mentioned are: Noe and Childers are from Kentucky, both had all time great albums, and both were/ are releasing their 2nd albums. I, among others, feared a Childers-esque drop off just because that let down made me gun-shy.
“You looked so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime” from Dylan is a pretty lame lyric. Dylan had a lifetime worth of great work, but filler too. He’s certainly a better poet than a singer though, so that comes out in his music. Dylan was hard to understand at times, but Noe can be as well. And Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, among many others. I appreciate having the lyrics in the liner notes regardless of the singer
March 30, 2022 @ 5:52 am
I ran across Burnin Down The Prairie a few weeks ago and was sold. That is some fine writing.
March 30, 2022 @ 6:56 am
Thx to SCM & this article, we have ‘just discovered’ Ian Noe and wow — we are now ‘googling’ to find out more and hear more. In fact, the next question becomes: ‘how many hours driving from here to the closest live performance location — which seems to be Richmond KY’ Hmmm…. a border crossing & a 2 day drive — not impossible — especially when (on SCM’s facebook page) Jimmy Davis says “he sounds just as good live”.) Thx Trigger for all that you do.
John R Baker
March 30, 2022 @ 10:23 am
Make sure you check out his first album as well, It’s at least as brilliant.
Also, this song is unrecorded but is also brilliant though a harrowing tale of apocalypse. A must hear if you find yourself becoming a fan though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W2-Oj2DPWs
John R Baker
March 30, 2022 @ 9:44 am
Ian Noe is what got me hooked on reading this site. Few other really cover this brilliant young artist so thanks.
When I have tried to describe him to people I say “it’s as if Cormac McCarthy wrote lyrics for Arlo Guthrie.” I think that’s a little less true on this album because it’s not as dark and violent but it’s true that it’s still not exactly light hearted.
It’s hard not to compare him to those that have gone before but I find him to be a truly unique voice in music.
March 30, 2022 @ 7:06 pm
He did the Hippies & Cowboys podcast recently and it is an excellent listen. The Dylan influence is real, and revealed on the podcast. Also, he talks in the podcast how he already has another album in the can but believes this to be a better followup to Between The Country. Easily one of the top 4 or 5 artists in this genre right now, imo.
March 31, 2022 @ 10:20 pm
Feel like a clown ‘neath a paper crown
Juggling in an empty tent
April 9, 2022 @ 12:29 pm
Saw Noe for the first time a couple of nights ago at Grant’s Lounge in Macon Ga. Completely blown away. I mean, holy shit, he and his band are on another level. Do everything you can to see him now while he is still playing small venues. Super lucky to catch him at Grant’s, the stage is about one foot high, and I was literally three feet away from him the entire show. Album of the year!
May 23, 2022 @ 2:24 pm
Recently gave this album a listen and I’m digging it but I was also initially blown away by how much he sounds like Jim Croce if Croce grew up in Kentucky.