I’m always listening to music. I listen to so much music that I have two strands of listening going at any one time–the stuff I’m reviewing and the stuff I’m listening to for fun. It’s been this way since I was in high school: I once spent six months listening to nothing but CAKE in my spare time. (It’s a good thing I have two arms of this project.) In short, my love for CAKE is deep and abiding. If you’ve read this blog recently, you know that my love for alt-country is just as deep (although categorically not as abiding, as it hasn’t been around for a decade yet.) So if there’s a band that combines CAKE and alt-country, it’s a sure bet that I’m going to be all over that.
Embleton‘s It Did Me Well does just that, including a re-contextualized cover* of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” amid a set of tight, lush, upbeat alt-country songs reminiscent of Dawes and Ryan Adams. The nine songs here form a cohesive whole that shows refined songwriting and arranging skills on the part of bandleader Kevin Embleton.
The opening quartet of tunes says a lot about the record: Opener and title track “It Did Me Well” introduces a crunchy electric guitar riff before settling down into an easy-going acoustic strum. That pattern is soon filled out by wavering pedal steel, distant drums, and Embleton’s impassioned high baritone/low tenor voice. It’s a walking-speed jam that instrumentally reminds me of the Jayhawks and vocally calls up comparisons to the controlled drama of Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. “You’re Not Ready” introduces a harmonica to the mix, taking a lighter tack than the electrified previous tune. Embleton goes for the pop melody in the chorus, showing off some chops there.
The third track is that CAKE cover. Sonically, it’s not that much different than the original, but it’s pulled from its ironic context (CAKE is not an alt-country band) and placed into an earnest one. Surrounded by other country tunes, it takes on a poignant air that was hard to find in the midst of the irony-laced original. It’s a very clever move on Embleton’s part. The fourth track is lead single “Leaving for Good” (IC premiered it), which slots the pedal steel in the lead spot and creates a gentle tune around that keening, mournful sound. The drums still give the song pep and punch, but the emotional qualities of the lyrics and vocals come front and center. It shows off a different angle of the Embleton sound.
The rest of the album continues to develop the balance between crunchy riffs (“Punches”) and gentle arrangements (“Her Name Was Grace”) while displaying an emotional quality through the vocal lines and the melodies (“Only Begun,” “Mountain Time”). Fans of harder edges on their alt-country (Drive-by Truckers, et al) might find that not to their liking, but fans of Dawes’ ruminations on life and love will love it. If you’re into the past or present Laurel Canyon sound, you’ll be all up in this. It Did Me Well drops March 10–you can pre-order it at Embleton’s site.
*Post-publication, I was informed that “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is originally a Willie Nelson tune, which means that Embleton re-re-contextualized it. As I only knew about the CAKE version when I wrote the review, I’m leaving the text the same. Sorry, Willie. Sorry, Trigger.
It’s been a wild and chaotic 2015 so far, as I’ve already logged two interstate trips. Amid the travel commitments, I’ve had the good pleasure of coming across the alt-country of Embleton. Kevin Embleton’s songwriting vehicle combines the poignant pedal steel of Mojave 3, the soaring arrangements of Dawes, and the ragged charm of Bright Eyes in the sentimental barn-burner “Leaving for Good.” The living eulogy for a close friend leaving the area floats along on a river of flaring horns and Embleton’s low, passionate vocals.