If you stick around in the music reviewing game long enough, you get to see whole long swaths of people’s careers. I’ve been covering TJ Foster’s work with Accents and then Darling Valley since 2012, and Ryan Hutchens’ work as Cancellieri since 2014. Both of the songwriters have new releases out under their own names. Both of the albums are highly retrospective releases, giving a glimpse into what was happening personally over the last few years that I’ve known them professionally.
TJ Foster‘s First Person, Volume One contains tracks like “An Ode to My Twenties” (self-explanatory) and “The Basement,” which details his changing relationship throughout his life to a sanctum of sorts. Both of these songs touch on his parents’ divorce, which is one of many personal events that he’s sorting out in this record.
Given that content, the tone of the record is very sad: there’s a romantic nobility in facing sadness with dignity, and Foster is trying to walk that path. Standout opener “I Don’t Know” sets the tone that pervades almost every track, as Foster sets gloriously-executed multi-tracked vocal harmony over a solemn fingerpicked guitar melody. The song closes with as good a thesis statement as you can get for a sort-through-the-past album: “Am I a sucker for sadness, or is it one for me? / Am I losing my grip on some reality? / I don’t know / I don’t know.” It’s an excellent song.
Elsewhere “Brokenfine” adds solid piano, allowing for even more gravitas. “An Ode to My Twenties” is an upbeat major-key folk tune complete with harmonica–it’s one of the few moments of sunshine sonically, even if the lyrics are still (mostly) in line with the rest of the record. “What If” is a slightly dreamy take on folk, while “57” is a quiet tune built off another lovely finger-picking-and-vocals core. First Person, Volume One is a specific, personal record that could hit someone doing a re-evaluation of their 20s square in the numbers.
Ryan Hutchens‘ The Last Ten Years is retrospective in several ways; the record has a lyrical cast looking back on the last decade, while also re-recording some tunes previously released as Cancellieri. For someone who’s been following his work for a while, it’s nice to hear some songs that are like old friends (“Fortunate Peace” in particular).
The sonic vibe is not overtly sad–opener “Green My Eyes” has a gently adventurous arrangement that sounds like a Freelance Whales track, what with the complex patterning of banjo and guitar melodies laid against subtle drone-like element (in this case piano and distant guitar chords). It’s a warm, inviting track, welcoming you into the record. Hutchens loves calm, peaceful arrangements, and even this complex one has an overall feeling of relaxation.
Right after that track comes the title track of the record, which sets a tone lyrically–there’s a sense of loss and even bitterness in these tracks. The loss is especially raw in “The Trouble With You”. There’s some unrequited love spread throughout the record, some re-evaluation of a working-musician’s career trajectory (“The Landing”), and some consideration of loneliness and death (“Poor Old Man,” “The Landing” again).
But even “The Landing,” the lyrical core of the very sad lyrical set, is a major key folk shuffle with lazy pedal steel evoking Hawaiian vibes. If you’re the sort that listens to the vibe instead of the lyrics, this record will have a completely different feel for you than if you’re one who scrutinizes the words. Yet the dichotomy isn’t as terribly jarring as it sounds on paper, because Hutchens’ voice contains all manner of emotions throughout the tunes–his vocal performances hold the two pieces of the record together. If you’re into peaceful singer/songwriter records with strong arrangements and/or difficult lyrics, you’ll be into The Last Ten Years.