Chuck Ragan – Gold Country
Record Label: SideOneDummy
Release Date: September 1, 2009
On The New What’s Next, it was clear the members of Hot Water Music were moving in different musical directions, as previously unacknowledged influences like the Afghan Whigs came bubbling to the surface. It came as no surprise when the group split, and it was totally logical when most of the band went on to form The Draft, who sounded pretty much just like that last album. The big shocker was co-front man Chuck Ragan’s new solo project, a foray into stripped down, American folk music. He released 2007’s Feast or Famine to great critical fanfare, and now he returns with the equally captivating Gold Country.
Ragan claims to have spent more time on this album than anything else in his career, which may strike a chord to some picky purists*, who would argue that by definition folk should be “of the moment”. But the time spent is justified, as each of these songs sounds thoroughly thoughtful and contemplative. Plus there’s more than just guitar and voice going on here; strings and percussion flush out the music to a much fuller, often emotional sound.
Know this right off the bat – if you’re looking for anything resembling Hot Water Music, it’s not happening. The only similarity is that Ragan’s melodic vocal lines are focal points on every track, rough as they’ve always been. For Hot Water Music fans, half the excitement is just getting used to that voice in this context. But you don’t need to have grown up with Hot Water Music to appreciate these simple, beautiful tunes – songs like “Glory” should resonate with anybody who likes music, even if you find the song title cliché (because it is.) One of the darker moments on the album, that verse melody could haunt you for days, but you’d still sing along.
Of course that’s not the only stand out track on Gold Country (though it may be the best.) “Cut ‘em Down” is the kind of song that’s so powerful yet so simple you wonder how you haven’t already written it yourself, but it’s the performance that truly delivers. The string section adds depth to every guitar chord, and again, Ragan’s voice is what really puts it all over the top. Probably because of the string arrangements, these songs are simultaneously triumphant and a bit eerie, a mixture that really works for Ragan and his band.
“The Trench” even has a sort of punk approach – you can picture it as a Social Distortion tune. It’s followed by a Drive-By Truckers type lap steel guitar track on “Don’t Say A Word”, and the awesome thing is that these tunes fit together seamlessly in the context of the album. In fact there’s not a tune to skip on the entire record.
Ragan’s success in this genre came to me (and will come to most) as a total left-field surprise, but I think you’ll find that once the shock wears off, the songs and the performances really do hold their own. This is no ironic statement – the dude’s heart’s really in it, and though it’s still hard to forgive him for breaking up Hot Water Music, “artistic differences” doesn’t even begin to describe what he must have been feeling at the end there.
I'm gonna meet Saint Chuck again on September 2nd in my hometown in Germany.. Great review, but I wonder why you didn't mention the song Rotterdam which is one of the best songs Chuck has written so far.. so simple, so beautiful .. and not to forget - George is on the drums on the album ...
Excellent review, but Chuck's switch to folk music was not as much as a surprise as portrayed here. Chuck, Chris, and George were all in an American folk band called Rumbleseat in the late 90's. The song 'California Burritos' on Feast or Famine is actually a cover from Rumbleseat (a great track that was recreated much cleaner by Chuck).
For any fans of Chuck Ragan defiantly check out Rumbleseat, the dual vocals of Hot Water Music with the folk style is by far one of my favorite side projects of all time.