Chuck Ragan – Los Feliz
Release Date: May 8th 2007
Record Label: Side One Dummy
The decision to leave behind the comfort of a band and step into the solo spotlight is a hard choice that has seen a recent surge in popularity. From Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue to The Lawrence Arms’ Chris McCaughan, it seems like the acoustic solo album is a right of passage in the independent music scene, a chance to test the true songwriting skills without the safety and input of other members. There is much more to prove when the other members of your band happen to make up the highly influential Hot Water Music. Luckily for fans of the band (and music fans in general), none of the passion, intensity or performance skills of Hot Water Music overshadow the genuine talent of their grizzled front man. Chuck Ragan has managed to capture on tape all the aspects that made his previous band so influential while simultaneously gaining deserved integrity as a solo artist.
Unlike the previous examples of solo projects released in the past 12 months, Los Feliz was recorded live at a small, under-promoted show in mid February of 2007. This seemingly innocuous fact actually largely influences the outcome of the album. Most live albums are a good listen, but don’t really add anything new to the material being covered within aside from an altered guitar lick and meaningless stage banter between songs. During this intimate performance, Ragan’s connection with the crowd is clearly audible. It is clear that every person in that audience left the show knowing that what they had just witnessed was special and, for the first time in a while, the crowd contributes to the extremely positive nature of the show. The hooting and hollering that erupts mid way into Los Feliz just makes the listener wish they were there. It’s not out of the question to assume that when Chuck dedicates a song to someone that they are sitting front row, raising a beer to him and smiling. The good vibes are infectious and give us a glimpse into Chuck as an artist while his speaking in between tracks leaves little doubt that he is anything but completely honest in his performance and song choice. Speaking of song choice, the medium of a live album allows Ragan the opportunity to play a vast array of material he normally may not have recorded ranging from traditional songs to previously unreleased solo tracks and even a Hot Water Music favorite thrown in for good measure. The set list is varied enough that it never gets boring while maintaining an eerily steady flow.
If you have at all listened to Hot Water Music, than you know what to expect in terms of Chuck’s raspy delivery. If you weren’t too keen of their back catalogue, perhaps you should give Los Feliz. It may not convert anyone, but Ragan’s voice has never sounded better. What it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for with sincere unbridled emotion. The level of strain evoked from every sustained note seems to be correlated with the level of passion put forth by this former front man. The lyrical topics conveyed also share the same personal level as Ragan’s delivery. Chuck draws inspiration from all different areas of his life from a ballad about war (“Good Deciding”) to a song he wrote as a retirement present for his father in law (“Congratulations Joe”). The former is a perfect example of just how meaningful a guy and his guitar can sound, evoking hoots of approval from the audience. On “Fixing To Die”, Ragan shows some blues roots and pulls it off surprisingly well, his wrenching voice emanating truthfulness. For the most part, Los Feliz relies mainly on acoustic guitar and vocals, however some accompaniment is supplied by friends of Ragan to add to the intimacy of the show. The fiddles and harmonica on “Do You Pray” and “Valentine” sound completely natural, which is odd considering the music Ragan was making not too long ago. It’s a progression that might not please some due to its different nature. The highest production value should not be expected. This is a stripped down release, but one that had every intention of being just that. After all, it’s just a guy playing in a room with some of his closest friends hoping to share some of that intimacy on a live album. While it may not be life changing, Los Feliz gives Chuck Ragan complete control to express himself as he sees fit. This might be off-putting to some, but for others this little concert is a great way to fill the void left by Hot Water Music while acting as a poignant reminder of Ragan’s song-writing ability.
Great review, even better album. I agree with everyone before me about how I loved HWM, but I didn't really dig The Draft. This album was not only a nice alongside all the live bootlegs that have surfaced from Chuck's live shows from last year, but also alongside the monthly 7" he's releasing.