Several months and three issues into the existence of this magazine, it’s becoming fairly clear to me that if indeed the No Depression community has a home base at the moment – a geographic region that seems unusually rich in alternative country acts, in terms of both quantity and quality – it’s North Carolina. Chicago may have Bloodshot Records and a remarkably large network of supportive clubs and fans; Austin may have traditionalist legends and honky-tonks galore; but North Carolina has the most promising young bands from which this fountainhead of musical excitement is presently springing forth.
First it was Whiskeytown, whose CD Faithless Street, released last fall on the fledgling Mood Food label, wasn’t just one of the finest debut discs of the year or one of the finest alternative-country albums of the year, it was one of the best records of the year, period: Then there’s Freight Whaler, a Whiskeytown offshoot that already has folks talking as if they could overshadow the band from which they’re offshooting. Waiting in the wings are talented bands such as the Backsliders and 6 String Drag, whose praises are sung in this issue’s live reviews section and who soon will have records to back it up.
And then there’s Jolene, who quite possibly could become the biggest of all these bands. If Whiskeytown is the Nirvana of the NC alt-country scene – led by a punk-hearted genius (Ryan Adams) whose volatility gives his band both brilliance and instability – then Jolene might be the Pearl Jam, a more steady group of veterans from other bands whose ability to work together just might allow them a shot at that proverbial brass ring.
They’ve certainly got the musical goods to go for it. Hell’s Half Acre, the full-length follow-up to the band’s self-titled debut EP of last fall, is a solid rock of an album, 14 memorable cuts of country-tinged rock ‘n’ pop ‘n’ roll that showcases Jolene’s unquestionable talent in terms of both musicianship and songwriting.
At the center is John Crooke, the band’s primary songwriter and about as fine a singer as you’ll find in the alternative-country camp. Crooke has the gritty spunk to pull off more rockin’ numbers such as “China Card”, the dynamic range to shift gears from gracefulness to intensity on “Birdland”, the personality to intone “I Failed Me Again” with the aura of resignation it requires, and the beautiful smoothness to pack the touching ballad “Floatplane Notebooks” with the kind of heartfelt compassion that makes it a perfect closing track.
And then there are the pop songs. “I Read What You Wrote Today”, rendered as a refreshingly simple acoustic porch song on the EP, is given gloriously full studio treatment here, with a stunning duet vocal performance by guest Kim Richey. The song’s melody is irresistible, and with Crooke and Richey applying their equally appealing voices to alternating verses, and singing in harmony on the chorus, it’s a sure-fire hit for any radio station – country, triple-A, pop, rock, whatever – willing to give it a chance in their rotation. Not far off from that pace is “Garden Days”, an effortlessly peppy song anchored by an alternately fuzzy and jangly guitar backdrop, and “Esseola”, the kind of mid-tempo folk-rock number that sounds harmless enough on first listen but just keeps grabbing at you deeper and deeper each time it comes around again.
Lyrically, few of these songs are so immediately ingratiating that you find yourself singing along right off the bat, and that’s generally a good sign: A certain amount of ambiguity affords the songs a degree of longevity that encourages repeated listens. The group’s one venture into another writer’s territory reveals impeccable taste, as they cover Vic Chesnutt’s “Isadora Duncan” – one of Chesnutt’s finest and most distinctive lyrical accomplishments, but given enough of a musical makeover here that Jolene leaves its own thoroughly appreciable stamp on it.
Four or five times through Hells Half Acre, the one thing that becomes abundantly clear is just how commercial this record is – and I mean that in the most positive sense of an all-too-often maligned and misunderstood word. Simply put, this is wonderfully listenable music: well written, solidly performed, skillfully recorded, and capable of appealing to a significantly wide audience, from the hardcore alternative-country folks to the masses that flipped their lids over Hootie.
When Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street came out, I suggested to the somewhat unassuming head of the band’s small indie label that he might have a project on his hands that could sell 10,000 copies – which would be no mean feat for a label Mood Food’s size. Ardent Records is a bit bigger, and what they have on their hands with Jolene is also probably more universally marketable – so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if Hell’s Half Acre ends up selling 100,000 before all’s said and done.
Of course, that’s all guesswork, and in the end, those kinds of numbers don’t really matter anyhow. The only number that ultimately means anything to me is how many times I’ve played this record in the past month, and that has to be at least a couple dozen by now. It’s enough to make me wish I lived in North Carolina, so I could how up over the past couple of years. There’s something special going on down there.