Goodnight, Texas - Uncle John Farquhar
Record Label: Tallest Man Records
Release Date: Aug. 3, 2014
Few Americana outfits have been as impressive as Chapel Hill and San Francisco quartet Goodnight, Texas. Their debut effort A Long Life of Living was a spellbinding tour-de-force into old-school roots-grass. Their sophomore follow-up Uncle John Farquhar continues the band’s momentum but never once reaches the apex of the debut. While the dreaded tag of sophomore slump might be too presumptive, the disc definitely has its feigned moments.
The album opens perfectly with the vernal instrumental “Hayride,” a mandolin-driven jaunt that is ebullient, sprite and airy. The song also serves as a mission statement for Goodnight, Texas. Chances are if you don’t enjoy “Hayride,” you won’t enjoy Uncle John Farquhar. The album really takes off on the hazy “Button Your Collar,” a weekend anthem fit for a Southern gentleman. More importantly, “Button Your Collar” is playful, flirty and absolutely splendid in every sense of the word. The banjo, which much like the mandolin, is the center of what Goodnight, Texas does, returns to the forefront on the bubbly “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme,” a hopeful, summery sweet tonic to new love. More cuts like this and Uncle John would have been a knockout.
Where Goodnight, Texas shines is in its power of place, more importantly, the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Valleys. The duo’s allegiance to the American Southeast shows up in spades throughout Uncle John Farquhar and the first of those is the Appalachian soaked “The Horse Accident (In Which a Girl Was All But Killed),” Equally as rousing as its predecessors, “The Horse Accident,” is a sterling narrative that would make the likes of Jim Lauderdale quite proud. Americana music is at its best when its telling great stories and “The Horse Accident,” is very much that kind of song.
Like most acoustic-based bands, Goodnight, Texas is at their zenith on weary, whiskey-soaked ballads and the first of those is the plaintive and open-hearted “I Just Can’t Stop Leaving Town.” A mournful apology to a lover that hints at the promise of just how good Goodnight, Texas can be, “I Just Can’t Stop Leaving Town” is the very reason Goodnight, Texas are a band to watch in the months and years to come. They further that statement on the placid and near-perfect “Cold Riders.” With a muted landscape, the song allows the bleary-eyed vocals to do much of the heavy lifting and their ability to convey a myriad of emotions is why “Cold Riders” is so worth revisiting.
After a near perfect opening half, the second act of Uncle John is where the disc falls apart. That being written, you would never know from the opening. “Moonshiners,” the second of four Appalachian-themed songs and arguably one of the strongest, is a dark and haunting cut that snakes along ominously and reaches its apex in the song’s final minute. After the quasi-instrumental “Many Miles from Blacksburg,” the disc yields to “Dearest Sarah,” an age-old Civil Warn yarn that disguises itself as a love letter to a soldier’s wife. Easily the longest song on the album, “Dearest Sarah” is proof positive of what great storytellers Goodnight, Texas truly are. Hands down the strongest and most accessible effort of Uncle John is the pedal steel-laden “Ballad of a Fair Young Lady,” a song that finds the duo firing on all cylinders.
And then, Uncle John Farquhar stumbles badly.
The album’s title track once again unravels a gripping narrative while at the same time carrying many of the trappings of Americana’s fore-bearers. Yet nowhere in the song does the band sound authentic, in fact they sound downright imitative. The quartet jumps back to uplifting grassroots jams on the cheery “Hello, Nebraska,” a song which seems more fit for a Garrison Keillor novel than that of an Appalachian folk album. While it’s a sweet little ditty there’s little about it that pushes forward with the album’s agenda.
As if cognizant of their mistakes, Goodnight, Texas atones for these missteps on the crunchy “Knock ‘Em Stiff,” a gritty and urgent affair that finds Goodnight, Texas at their absolute best. Much like “Button Your Collar” and “Cold Riders,” “Knock ‘Em Stiff” draws on more than just the talents of band founders Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf. And it is in those moments, when the duo surrenders control to their rhythm section that they absolutely knock it out of the park.
Though its not nearly as engaging as their debut, Uncle John Farquhar is still an inspired effort from a very young band that is still trying to feel their way through their sound. Often times a titanic debut effort is a hard thing to top and as much as it tries to upend its predecessor, it never fully does. So it goes. Here’s to album three!