Album Review – Jeff Crosby’s “Northstar”

photo: Cary Judd

Jeff Crosby is an important character in the alt-country, Americana, and independent country realm, and has been for a long time, and in a number of capacities. Though he’s now contributed five original records to the world, his name only has come up around these parts in the capacity of a side player, principally for his recent fill-in work with Reckless Kelly after the departure of the band’s long-time guitarist David Abeyta. He contributed largely to the band’s new album American Jackpot/American Girls as well.

It’s true Crosby is a perennial road dog and willing collaborator that will hitch a ride with almost anyone and lend a hand however he can. But it feels a little insulting to frame this singer, songwriter, and guitarist originally from northern Idaho (hence the kinship with Reckless Kelly) through the music of others, and not train the spotlight squarely on his solo efforts.

At first I was a little worried his new album Northstar would not be the ideal moment for introducing him to an audience of mostly country music listeners. And undoubtedly the album begins with a decidedly rock attitude, aside from the rootsy and sentimental “Hold This Town Together”—a well-written song about the dying of a small community.

The title track “Northstar” is much more alt than country, capturing Crosby in a claustrophobic mood where the city lights and rat race cloud his sense of direction—something he can sing about with authority as someone who spent too much time in Los Angeles paying too much rent, even if it resulted in getting a couple of his songs in the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack.

“Laramie,” “Out of My Hands,” and “Liability” are like an aching trilogy of heartbreak and resignation about the loss of love, and the realization it’s the fault of one’s own shortcomings, told through moody textures that when it comes to “Out of My Hands” could almost pass for early Radiohead, while “Liability” tortures you with the demoralization of unrequited love born on drawn out syllables.

But those looking for the country within Jeff Crosby, and the featuring of more steel guitar, this promise is greatly fulfilled in the second half of Northstar, starting with the really sad but sweet “Born To Be Lonely.” Then “My Mother’s God” delivers even more pedal steel, and probably the best line of the album, “Throw your heart in the river, hope it sees the ocean someday.”

Northstar is one of those records that a first or even second pass doesn’t reveal the full magic of, yet all of a sudden if you listen long enough, you’ll find yourself in a continuous play loop you don’t want to escape from. And whether you’re an alt-country nut or a dedicated twanger, there’s something to love here. In fact as a country fan you perhaps grow to like the rock-style songs even more. That’s what happens when the writing is so consistently good, and so is the production, like the expressive drums of the final song, “Red, White, Black, & Blue.”

Northstar is just the tip of the iceberg of the contributions of Jeff Crosby has lent to independent roots music, but it’s a really good place to start getting into this excellent but under-the-radar singer, songwriter, and stellar guitar player.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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