Following the release of their marvelous 1995 disc Dog Days, Oxford, Mississippi, band Blue Mountain looked to be on the verge of becoming one of the cornerstone bands of alt-country. Their particular blend of roots-rock holds the kind of broad appeal that could potentially connect with an audience the size of, say, Son Volt’s. Home Grown, released in 1997, consolidated the band’s strengths but didn’t move them any further down the path, lacking a bit of the urgency that made its predecessor so inviting.
Tales Of A Traveler restores Blue Mountain’s enticing musical vision and then some. These 12 songs find the band peaking both when it does what it does best and when it ventures into new sonic territories. The album kicks off in fine fashion with “When You’re Not Mine”, a melodic rocker that soars, as does much of the album, on the interwoven lead vocals of husband-and-wife Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt. Their harmonies, and, just as importantly, the subtle, fleeting moments when their voices veer off course are Blue Mountain’s musical signature.
“Lakeside” provides another showcase for the pair, as Hudson’s passionate “oohs” lead into the shared vocals of the first verse, in which the last word or phrase of a line (“moonlight”, “dogfight”, “midnight”, “water tank”, “lakeside”, “double-wide” and “wild ride”) gets a unique reading from each voice.
Stirratt takes more of a traditional backup singer role on “Comic Book Kid”, but the effect is no less arresting. She adds some unexpected “nah-nahs” to the last verse of her husband’s poignant coming-of-age tale, a song filled with humorous lyrical detail (“Nobody knows and nobody cares, ‘cept for maybe my cat/He ran away three days ago, I’m just a hopin’ that he ain’t squashed flat”) and one of the album’s many expressive guitar solos. More great singing and soloing marks the upbeat and catchy “I Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight”, with Stirratt stepping up on the infectious chorus and Hudson showing his power-pop chops on guitar. And there’s plenty of wit fueling “Poppa”, a Southern-fried stomper with a litany of funny details about the man (“Poppa ate squirrel…Poppa ate everything in the house”; “Poppa passed out in the middle of the yard, Poppa never knew when to stop”).
“Sleepin’ In My Shoes” moves into English blues-rock territory and makes great use of Jim Spake’s tenor and baritone saxophone riffs and some faint, plinking piano keys. But Blue Mountain’s musical experimentation takes its boldest step with “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”, an atmospheric blues number that shares more in common with Chris Isaak than just its title. Recorded away from the rest of the album sessions in Oxnard, California (at the same converted theater where Willie Nelson cut Teatro), “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” is an almost complete departure from the Blue Mountain sound (drummer Frank Coutch even gives way to veteran L.A. session sticksman Don Heffington for the track). But Hudson is equal to the task, bringing just the right world-weary tone to his vocal, which rides a sinewy rhythm section and some accomplished fretwork.
With a spirit of experimentation now firmly established, “Hermit Of The Hidden Beach” retains some of the air of mystery from “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”, this time in a complex acoustic reading of Hudson’s enigmatic first-person tale. Next, “Death Is A Fisherman” conjures up another distinct and moody atmosphere, with all four band members, including recent recruit George Sheldon, playing away from their familiar strengths and showing considerable range.
Tales Of A Traveler wraps with the wonderful “Just Passing Through”, which brings all of the places visited in the previous eleven tracks together in a New Orleans-flavored gospel sing-along (spiced by Jeff Callaway’s trombone accents). It’s an appropriate close to an adventurous effort, a rare album that offers more of what you love about a band while introducing what you’ll soon come to love.