It’s only those uninitiated in the new crop of country music songwriters who complain that all the greats are gone, and the magic of the music is never to return to its heyday in the 70s when guys like Rodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt were sitting around Guy Clark’s kitchen table, cranking out songs that would define the greatest contributions of a generation.
Guy and Townes may no longer be with us. But Rodney still is, and he personally cites Vincent Neil Emerson as one of the newer songwriters filling those shoes in the contemporary era. A native Texan with Choctaw-Apache heritage who draws inspiration from the land and the songwriters who came before him, Vincent Neil Emerson has many feeling that magic that only the best of music can impart.
The Golden Crystal Kingdom might be a fantastical-sounding title, and some of the rhetoric preceding this album might be about Emerson “defying genre” with his third release. But don’t worry, you get everything you want from a Vincent Neil Emerson album here, including quality songs and a country sound, even if it lunges into the country rock realm in stretches, just like all those Heartworn country songwriters of the 70s did too.
The opening song “Time of the Rambler” is a dour reflection on how the era when a young soul could wander aimlessly throughout the United States searching for themselves and a sense of fulfillment from the freedom life imparts is in the past. It’s hard to find that Big Rock Candy Mountain when it’s impossible to get lost anymore.
This nostalgic, bygone yearning for times and places better than the current one comes up often on the album. The title track isn’t about a Disney castle. It’s ultimately about commemorating those wooden dance floors in old country stores in Texas where despite the humble nature of the setting, so much magic happens.
It’s not just the songs, but the sound of The Golden Crystal Kingdom that helps set your mind some 50 years in the past. Producer Shooter Jennings allows Emerson’s songs and singing to be the centerpiece on certain tracks like the acoustic “Clover on the Hillside,” or Emerson’s cover of Charley Crockett’s “Time of the Cottonwood Trees.” Most of this album is assuredly country, with songs like “Time of the Rambler” and “On The Banks of the Old Guadalupe,” and their steel guitar accompaniment defining the sound.
But in other instances, some fuzzy ’70s guitar comes in very hot. This injects a bit of energy in what’s otherwise a well-mannered singer/songwriter album. The bluesy “Hang Your Head Down Low” will get the pulse rate up for sure, and the disturbed and unsettled moments found in the lyricism of “Man From Uvalde” are met with similar moody textures in the sound.
Stuff may get a little too wild on Emerson’s rendition of Buffy Saint-Marie’s classic “Co’dine.” Some sort of reverse tape playback effect is employed on the guitar in a way that potentially graduates it from bold and distinctive to downright distracting. The knock of Shooter Jennings production early on was his propensity to inject wanky guitar parts where they weren’t warranted. He’s since chilled out significantly, but this might be an instance where he’s reverted back.
These more rock-oriented moments are also what separate Vincent Neil Emerson from the singer/songwriter gaggle, and allows his live show to be something more unique as well. Though “defying genre” doesn’t feel like the right description, Emerson and Shooter do a really excellent job catering the music of The Golden Crystal Kingdom to the theme of each song, delivering a tasty and engaging experience cover to cover. This is good, because some of the middle songs of the record strain to convey what they’re trying to express.
Nobody will ever truly fill the shoes of the past singer and songwriter greats like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. But what this generation can do is build from their foundation and continue that legacy into the future. This is what Vincent Neil Emerson is doing, and to favorable results on his third album.
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Purchase from LaHonda Records