Rich O’Toole has been one of those Texas/Red Dirt country rock guys teetering just enough towards the rock realm to be generally outside of the periphery of Saving Country Music’s coverage map for most of his career. That’s no knock on the music specifically. A spin through any one of his now seven studio records will find everything polished up and in the right place for the most part. Maybe there’s a few songs that make you wince a little from the rather conspicuous effort to compose a big hit that didn’t quite make it, and a few others you see the real value in.
In truth, O’Toole the man and O’Toole the music has remained a bit of a mystery, aside making his love for tacos abundantly clear on Twitter, and crafting some meaningful success over the years. The talent of the Houston native has always been there, and the drive to make it in music is surely present. But O’Toole never really seemed to know just exactly who he was, and that came through in mixed messages, and at times, inconsistent output.
But on his newest album New York, Rich O’Toole took the extra effort to make a record he could be proud of, not just for where he is now, but many years down the road, eschewing the effort to find that big hit that may launch him into the mainstream consciousness, and instead focused on making the best record he could. The result may be his most well-rounded and compelling work yet, and one country enough to present to that audience confidently, even if it’s named after the Big Apple, with O’Toole on the cover flanked by tenement buildings with their mazes of fire escapes.
Reminding one a lot of classic Brooks & Dunn with the conviction Rich O’Toole delivers his songs with, with inflections in his tone that also may remind one of the rebooted Randy Houser, New York really draws you in from O’Toole’s performances presented well through quality songwriting and sensible country rock arrangements. Don’t expect fiddle and steel (though there is slide and mandolin), and there is definitely a 90’s country vibe going on here, which right now is a hot commodity to have. Starting the album with a song titled “Back On My Bullshit” speaks to the boldness of the effort, and this unflinching courage is effective at drawing you in. He extends that ardent drive and energetic delivery into the songs “New York City” and “Peter & Paul.”
Starting the 2nd half of the record, Rich O’Toole remains in the 90’s era, but finds a bit more of an alternative rock vibe from the time, and for good reason. “Coke” was the semi-hit for Denton, TX-based rock band Flickerstick, and Rich is joined on the song by the singer from the band, Brandin Lea. This 90’s rock vibe is carried a bit into the slow ballad “Kate,” which then leads into rather ordinary, but rootsy “Mississippi Baby,” into the nostalgic and Mellencamp-feeling “American Steel.”
From his native of Texas, to California which gets it’s own song, to New York where O’Toole landed before the COVID-19 lock down and what he chose to dedicate the record to after all the hell it went through during the pandemic, he presents a travelogue of his efforts to find himself through women and worries and personal growth until he ends up with 11 songs and one epic finish named for renown architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Rich O’Toole may still be a bit of a work in progress, like we all are. But on New York, he finds his compass point, the sweet spot for his voice, the uniqueness of expressions that presents his music in an original and definable manner, and makes a record that finally answers, “Who is Rich O’Toole?”
Someone buy the man some tacos.
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Purchase Rich O’Toole’s New York