For most of us the phrase Gold Country evokes memories of the 49ers who flocked to California by boat and covered wagon in order to seek fortune for themselves and their families. Chuck Ragan's latest disc may be coming out a few lifetimes after the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century, however there's a timeless quality to the album that embodies the hope and hard work that helped define that period in the American consciousness. That has a lot to do with the fact that there's nothing preconceived about Gold Country. It's simply the sound of a talented songwriter doing what his kind has been doing for centuries: playing simple songs alongside a close group of friends not for hope of financial gains, but because he literally has no other choice.
"We recorded the record at Flying Whale Studio up on this six acre mining claim called Arrowhead Mines. It's an old local mine that was pretty well known back in the day," Ragan explains. "The record is just another page in the book and another chapter in life and it's documenting where we are in that moment of time. Right now Gold Country is what I've lived for, everything I've worked to achieve and hold sacred and everything I strive to get home to." Ragan knows a thing or two about paying his dues: since the early nineties he's co-fronted the legendary punk act Hot Water Music and over the past few years he's released a string of well-received solo acoustic efforts in the spirit of fellow folk troubadours like Steve Earle and Pete Seeger.
However nothing could prepare fans for Gold Country, an album that not only raises the bar for Ragan but for the singer-songwriter genre in general. Produced by Ragan in Northern California and performed alongside longtime collaborators like violinist Jon Gaunt and Hot Water Music drummer George Rebelo, Gold Country is a striking collection of songs that show how much Ragan has progressed since his 2007 solo debut Feast Or Famine. "Even though these songs were written in a short period of time, it's some of the most mature music that I've ever had a chance to take part in," Ragan acknowledges, adding that he spent more time on Gold Country than he has on any other recording in his career. "I'd say all in all I'm the most satisfied with this release than with anything I've ever done."
Matt Pryor (The Get Up Kids)
"I've always wanted to do something that was quieter and acoustic and could be played by one person. I wanted to go out and play shows alone. I just want to have my little folk moment." That's the first thing musician and songwriter Matt Pryor, known and beloved for his role fronting The Get Up Kids and The New Amsterdams, says about the impetus behind his new solo album, the flagship disc on his extensive discography to be released under his own name.
The album, entitled Confidence Man (Vagrant, 07/29/08), is just that, a hushed, intimate collection of folk-tinged acoustic songs that strip Pryor's skillful songwriting down its bare, emotive minimum. The 15 tracks encompass a long span of Pryor's career. The oldest, "Dear Lover," originated in 1995 and appears on this record in its third incarnation. The newest songs, like "A Totally New Year," "Only" and "Lovers Who Have Lost Their Cause," were conceived only a few months before the actual release of the record.
"When I decided to do the solo record," Pryor explains, "there was a really short window to get it done in time. That's all I did for a month. Write and record. Write and record. That's where the bulk of the songs came from. And then beyond that going through the back catalogue and saying 'Well, I've always like this song and maybe I can make it better and make it fit."
The writing and recording was all done in Pryor's garage, where he self-produced and self-recorded the entire album. This sounds like a practiced musician returning to his roots, but actually it is only in recent years that Pryor has attempted the art of home-recording. "I never actually recorded in a garage before now," he notes. "The first records that I ever did were in fancy recording studios, but I've been doing a lot of home recording lately."
Like on Pryor's most recent albums, the songwriting on these tracks is less autobiographical and more observant, often drawing on his friends' bad relationships to inspire the lyrics. But despite the portrayal of anything negative, Pryor's own happiness and stability are reflected throughout, shining between the sparse acoustic guitar riffs and his sweetly sung vocals. "It's subtle, but there's supposed to be this underlying air of positivity to some of the songs," he admits. "Just trying to reevaluate things and take more responsibility for the things that need to be done. I love my wife, I love my kids, everything's great, but that doesn't make for a very good or interesting record. You start to sound like you're gloating."
Pryor, who notes that "this probably will co-exist with the New Amsterdams in some capacity, I just have to wait and see what that capacity is," shouldn't need to prove that he is a successful solo musician after so many years of honing his chops in bands, but ultimately does do so on this album. And while he didn't set out to do so, he joking admits that's the root of the disc's title.
"It's tongue-in-cheek," Pryor laughs. "I'm trying to convince you that I can pull this off."
Seattle musician Rocky Votolato is a soft-spoken, very kind, very hard-working father of two, born in rural Texas and raised in the Pacific Northwest indie scene (where he fronted the acclaimed rock band Waxwing). In his decade-plus life as a songwriter and musician he has sought to articulate something essential about life, writing songs that seem to have been scratched into a boxcar wall by a worn-out and lonesome ghost. His gravelly, sandpaper smooth voice and introspective lyrics mark him as that most rare of punk-rocker-turned-acoustic-troubadours: Votolato writes graceful, understated, human, unpretentious songs, demonstrating that simplicity is still a viable option for accomplished songwriters.
His last two releases, Makers (2006, Barsuk) and The Brag & Cuss (2007, Barsuk), found him exploring and paying homage to the folk and country music that shaped his early life in Texas (Alternative Press described the former as "the disc Ryan Adams keeps threatening to make but never quite delivers," and Harp praised his "harmonies that would make Gram and Emmylou proud" on the latter). True Devotion, his new album, is a passionate, stripped down, and mostly acoustic reflection on moments from his current life; showing us where he is, where he has just come from, and where he's going.
Where he's going has to be better than where he's coming from: In the years following the release of The Brag & Cuss, Votolato's private lifelong battle with depression and anxiety started showing up in ways he could no longer hide from or disguise. Unable to write music or keep up the busy touring schedule that he's been known for, he cut himself off from almost all outside contact (at one point barely leaving his apartment for over a year). Spending his time reading, studying existential philosophy, history, physics, and theology, he gradually overcame his demons. He began writing again, and through the making of the new album (recorded almost entirely on his own, and then mixed with the help of longtime production collaborator Casey Foubert [Sufjan Stevens, David Bazan] and old friend John Goodmanson [The Blood Brothers, Sleater-Kinney]) found some long sought-after understanding and peace of mind.
Walking the line between autobiographical fact and fiction, True Devotion is deceptively simple, peppering impressionistic narratives with moments of lyrical wisdom that can knock the wind out of you. The first half of the album is full of dark psychology and social-critique themes that feel similar in approach to Votolato's 2003 release "Suicide Medicine".
"Sparklers" caps side A of the album by shifting away from darker themes as what seems like another bleak song of death reveals itself as a song of appreciation and acceptance of the transient nature of this existence; "Letting go is the best way to hold on / So watch the light dance in the dark until it's gone / Sparklers only burn / For so long."
The rest of the record shifts toward new ground, exploring a sense of enlightenment and a hopeful search for innocence and eternal truths, unexpectedly reminiscent of early Cat Stevens. On "Sun Devil," Votolato sings, "True devotion and true virtue / Will hold you at the center / As the waves crash over," lines that point to a turning point for him and a recognition of new priorities and a focus on what matters most in his life. The Gandhi-referential album-closer "Where We Started" drives this point home again with a philosophical upshot echoed by the sonic space that ends the track and also opens the album.
And if the future, creating its own echoes, waits with more bouts of inner torment for him or for his listeners, then Rocky Votolato has delivered on True Devotion a batch of intensely honest songs that may also act as a reminder and shadowy roadmap back toward peace.
Jenny Owen Youngs
Jenny Owen Youngs is a feisty, hyper-sensitive, disease-free singer/songwriter/former girl scout who wants to be your friend. claiming influences from Beck to Jesus Christ Superstar to Britney Spears, her music is an echo of Erin Mckeown hopping into Jeff Buckley's Pontiac, cruising backwoods Alabama red dirt roads and singing along to The Sundays and Nick Drake. Her songs straddle the heart-wrenching and the tongue-in-cheek and say giddyup.
Raised in the lush greenery of northwest New Jersey amongst cows, haystacks, and eastern deciduous forest, our heroine began singing immediately upon exiting the womb. After exploring the flute (elementary school) and the tuba (junior high), Jenny finally stepped up to the guitar at the tender age of fourteen and, as they say, got down to business.
Her current goals include musically causing the hair on your arms to stand up, learning greek, and like fellow jersey boy Jon Bon, seeing a million faces and rocking them all.