Charles Ellsworth and Vincent Draper’s Salt Lake City; A Love Story is a triumph for American songwriting. The pair spin ten stories that stretch out across the deserts of the southwest, blending outlaw grit with a raw streak of self-awareness.
The format could best be described as an “un-split.” Ellsworth and Draper, who are best friends, alternate songs on the record, but the songs share a sonic palette and instrumentation. Ellsworth’s voice is the more conventional of the two–a breathy baritone clear and strong enough that it wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-ahead pop-country outfit. Draper’s attack is deep and mournful, a highly ornamented bass that shows versatility when he jumps an octave and a half to belt harmonies on the title track.
Each man’s voice and a bright acoustic guitar sit squarely at the center of any given song, backed at various times by crackling drums, lilting cello and fiddle, a clanging Telecaster, and vocal harmonies by Josaleigh Pollett. Salt Lake City‘s production is stellar: it bounces manically from stripped-to-the-bone stillness to lush washes of compressed cymbals and strings. Ellsworth and Draper are credited with bass and drums, respectively, and their chemistry as a rhythm section is impressive. The tone for the orchestration across the board is definitely dramatic, but not overdone.
What sets this pair apart from the legion of young practitioners of Americana is the diversity of influences that come through on the record. For every anthemic moment that brings to mind Waylon or Bruce, there’s an entangled strain reminiscent of Mount Eerie or The National that drifts up from beneath a shadowy shroud.
The same contrast emerges lyrically. Ellsworth writes with an approach that’s full of big ideas (“She said believe in yourself, ’cause there ain’t no one else. But I’m still holding on to this love I know that you felt when I held you in my arms.”) and builds narratives that are moving and relatable. Draper’s lyrics are perhaps the bleaker of the two, driven by endearing detail. Both explore the care and feeding of personal demons, travel, and uncertainty.
All things considered, this is a hidden gem: 43 minutes of melancholy country-folk songs with no filler, written and executed with precision. If you’re feeling down, pour a glass of bourbon and give it a listen. You can stream the album here.-Declan Ryan