We’ve nearly gotten to the end of this long strange trip called 2020, hanging on together. For people like me, music connects us, communicating our shared experiences while we do this dance called life: together, apart. Thankfully, Evan Wardell’s debut In Like a Lion // Out Like a Light via Moo Moo Records glows with San Francisco’s surreal sonic luminescence, a perfect soundtrack for this bizarre year.
Wardell’s self-produced songwriting wraps his Martha’s Vineyard roots into an indie-rock palette that feels like something completely new. An engineer at San Francisco’s iconic Hyde Street Studios, artistry bleeds from each thought-provoking track on this record. The musician’s cover art is sheer perfection, displaying a disjointed connection. The cover art concept reflects that each part is necessary for the album’s singular experience.
What makes this record so good is its relatability. Opener “Gettin Across” is where frantic self-searching meets anxiety head-on. Mixed perfectly, this is a cacophony of chaos attempting to find a musical grounding point.
Is “Love Song” an attempt for Wardell to fit in? Maybe, but an undertone of sarcasm reminds listeners that this troubadour came from Martha’s Vineyard to the San Francisco scene. This one is a gem, as simple, authentic vocals ooze insecurity bolstered with bravado. Wardell’s production choices reflect a nuanced blend of heavy backline with subtle lift through each angst-filled lyric. The tempo changes of the acoustic-guitar-driven “Get By” set it among the best songs of the year. Angry, pensive, fearful, depressed; 2020 has helped us get in touch with our humanity. So thank you, Evan Wardell, for putting words and music to the crazy that’s been in my head.
“In Like A Lion // Out Like A Light” is a fitting title track to an album that took seven years of songwriting to come to fruition. There’s no doubt this is the title track; it’s gritty and dark, as if The Allman Brothers Band whiplashed into a Kurt Cobain experience. Halfway through, “Holding On” is a peaceful rest inward. Heady and nearly spoken word, this rhythmically-driven track is a look back on life and regrets. It seems harsh. But how many of us are afraid to follow our dreams, bringing forth one excuse or another to support our inaction? “Healthy Wise Free” serves as a sonic tonic. Reminiscent of greats like The Byrds, engaging lyricism is punctuated with stunningly fuzzed-out instrumentation.
“Wandering” lilts like the best country songs, but Wardell treads firmly in the land of Billy Strings or the late, great Neal Casal. Less limited by genre, talent like his waltzes freely; a credit to his years working in the recording industry, exposed to a vast artistic array. “Giving Up” feels like an understated masterpiece: an indie-rock song with lyrics full of millennial self-loathing. Rivers Cuomo feels like the muse here in this triumph.“BLS” flows in with a laid back rock vibe, while the genius of “With Teeth” recalls “Bang A Gong” from British rockers T-Rex (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2020!). Heavy, moody, and with a bit of glam, this is the Bay Area sound at its best.
Closing with “Like A Ghost,” there’s no mistake: this album has been birthed from a man whose passion is music in all forms. Soaring, this anthem serves a dual role as a eulogy to any predictability mainstream careers provide. Clearly following his passion, Evan Wardell’s In Like a Lion // Out Like a Light is my favorite album this year. —Lisa Whealy