Chuck Ragan – Feast Or Famine
Release Date: August 7th, 2007
Record Label: SideOneDummy Records
This year has certainly had its fair share of Chuck Ragan, former front man for Hot Water Music. Feast Or Famine represents Ragan’s full-length studio debut for SideOneDummy records, and although it is different from his live outing earlier this year, it is difficult to talk about one without mentioning the other. Los Feliz was an excellent live outing chock full of sincerity and strong acoustic songs. Luckily, the energy and all around good vibes that emanated from that disc must have carried over into the studio because Ragan has done it again with a strong follow-up to the release that proved he was capable of standing in the solo spotlight.
Although a solo album, Ragan had a lot of help from his friends in making Feast Or Famine. Matt Skiba (Alkaline Trio), Nathan Maxwell (Flogging Molly) and Tim Barry (Avail) all helped Ragan during the recording process, bringing out some diversity exclusive to the studio album. Where Los Feliz acted as a preview for some Chuck’s solo material, the studio effort is where these tracks begin to shine through and Ragan finally hits his stride. “The Boat”, although fundamentally the same, has some added studio tricks that transform it from a great acoustic song to a moody ballad sure to stand the test of time. The track now sees Ragan adding different layers to the song through a reverb soaked guitar that plays off of his gruff vocals and acting as the balance point that brings the song to the next level. The studio setting allows Chuck to really spread his wings, both vocally and musically. The added instrumentation (he plays lap steel, harmonica and both acoustic and electric guitars on this album), although subtle, really does make this album stand out in the crowd of “front men going solo” releases. The slight percussive beats and female vocal harmonies of “California Burritos” change the song just enough to keep it from being repetitive for those who have already torn through their copies of Los Feliz.
It is great to hear an all acoustic album that doesn’t need Pro Tools tricks to sound fantastic. A lot of artists that try this sort of thing just end up sounding boring at points or forced. Chuck Ragan is the opposite. It is impossible to listen to the heartfelt vignettes present on Feast or Famine and question Ragan’s ability as a songwriter. The album emotes a gruff honesty few artists can conjure in a studio setting. The question remains, “Is Feast or Famine worth a repurchase if I already have Los Feliz?” If you were at all a fan of Los Feliz, it would be a great disservice to not check out the slightly more polished and mature incarnations of these songs. There are songs exclusive to the album as well that are just as good as the songs we got a glimpse of in May (check out the organ laden “The Grove” for an example of the enhanced diversity, both in vocals and instrumentation). Feast or Famine is a disc that ignores the current music scene and brings us back to a time where an album relies solely on strong songwriting as a selling point. Chuck Ragan has proved himself once again and in the process made one of the most interesting and sincere releases this year.
This album is fantastic. My only true gripe is that the Rumbleseat version of "California Burritos" is a ton better than this version, and I would have preferred a new track (or just leaving it off). I can get over that, though.