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Josh Caress explores alt-country on Wild Wild Love

March 4, 2009

Country has long been a component of Josh Caress’ singer/songwriter sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s dedicated Wild Wild Love to exploring that element of his style. While he plays within the conventions for most of his first foray into Ryan Adams-esque alt-country,  he does create a handful of beautiful, adventurous tracks that make this album worth it.

Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! was the first real display of Caress’ country leanings, and it is still one of my favorite Caress albums. Adventure! worked because Caress displayed what he was made of. There wasn’t any Sufjan-esque instrumentation (The Rockford Files) or fuzzy drone underneath (Letting Go of a Dream). It displayed Caress as an introspective troubadour with complex arrangements, catchy melodies, folk/country leanings, and a cinematic bent. There’s nowhere to hide in Adventure!, and it is all the better for it.

The ability to hide the songwriting within the surrounding instruments is part of what makes Wild Wild Love a decent but not astounding release. The title track opens with a forlorn harmonica and some weary guitarwork.  It had my attention immediately; it’s great. Then, at around forty seconds, pedal steel, electric guitar, bass, drums and old timey violins come in. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but collectively they feel like overkill. The message could be sent that this is a country album without several of these markers.

Josh Caress knows this, too; the chorus of “Wild Wild Love” drops out the violins and bass, leaving only pedal steel, acoustic, gentle electric guitar and voice. It’s  still a lot, but it sounds like not much (in context) and it’s beautiful. It’s a problem that was present on Rockford Files as well; just because Caress can do something doesn’t mean he should.

But it’s not just massive instrumentation that allows his to hide. Caress busts out his electric guitar for several songs, dropping into honky-tonk mode (“Be My Baby Tonight”), righteous anger mode (“I Won’t Let You Strip Me of My Soul”) and even straight-up American rock and roll (“Don’t Believe the Rock and Roll”). It’s not that these songs are bad (although “Be My Baby Tonight” does stretch the limits of credibility); it’s just that they don’t seem fully honest. Perhaps it’s the initial learner’s curve of writing rock, I don’t know; but these songs don’t connect as well as his quieter work.

There are moments of intense clarity, though: “Lake Michigan” takes motifs from Adventure and ideas of instrumentation from Rockford Files to create one of the best tracks he’s ever created. It’s beautiful because the pedal steel, mandolin, drums,organ, secondary guitar and background vocals are used perfectly. I could listen to “Lake Michigan” over and over; if I had to put together a Josh Caress greatest hits album, this would be on it. “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” provides heart-crushing lyrics and one of the most steady vocal performances Caress has ever produced; it’s another stand-out. The control that Caress exercises over his voice on this track is impressive; this track alone is a major step forward in his songwriting style.

“I Wanna Be Your Man” is one of the better louder tracks here, as the vocals are memorable. The blue-collar, Joe Anybody feel of “A Path, Through Suffering” channels Springsteen (sorta). They’re louder and enjoyable; so it’s not like Caress can’t write a good loud song. It’s just that his quieter, more introspective stuff (at this point) works better.

There are lots of tracks here that are enjoyable, but the sum definitely feels like the experiment it is. “Lake Michigan” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” are almost worth the price of admission on their own, so the recommendation here is definitely “buy.” But there are definitely some things that Josh Caress needs to get adjusted to in the alt-country genre if he’s going to keep chillin’ there for a while.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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