I've always believed that you can measure the quality of an album by how many different things you think about that album being a potential soundtrack to.
"I can't wait to listen to this while I'm driving."
"I'm definitely gonna throw this on when I'm fixing up the porch."
"This would be great to listen to when we're fishing tomorrow."
There could be any number of different ideas, but the commonality is how much more enjoyable they'd be with those rhythms and melodies swimming through your head. How much more enjoyable they'd be while you sing along and completely ignore how terrible you sound doing so. That[ is what marks an album with real replay value.
That is Chuck Ragan's new full-length, Till Midnight.
At almost 40 years of age, Ragan is still maturing. Still refining his approach. Still learning how to be the influence in this new genre that Hot Water Music was in theirs. The ten songs that comprise this album, Ragan's fourth, implement punk, folk, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll into a tapestry that some of his earlier records couldn't boast. The visceral aggression of older songs like "The Boat" have become more full, layered experiences. The punchy acoustic rythms of older songs like "Between the Lines" have given way to more thoughtfully constructed salvos.
To be perfectly clear: This is far and away the best record Ragan has done.
Much of the reason for that fuller sound is the group of musicians accompanying Ragan. "Something May Catch Fire" starts the record with a toe-tapping mix of violin, percussion and acoustic guitar before launching into an energetic chorus that reprises several times over the course of the song. There's spirit here; an unflappable zeal that could soundtrack an Irish Wake.
And things are just getting started.
"Vagabond" carries the previous track's energy with it and welcomes Lucero singer Ben Nichols in to help with vocal duties, but it's not just the choruses that matter here. The bridge hits you with instrumentation from all sides; first with bluesy electric guitar, then with organ, until the violin joins the fray just before Ragan starts belting once again. That exemplifies the dynamism previous records were sorely lacking. The energy was always there. The gruff, rousing vocals were always there. And now so is the soul required to really fill a room with sound.
None of this is to say that Ragan has totally eschewed the style that made him popular in the first place. "Bedroll Lullaby" would have fit in on any of the previous records with its simple rhythms and gripping vocals. "Wake With You" doesn't require way much in the way of instrumentation; just Ragan plucking on the acoustic guitar and assuring "take me in I'll be good to you baby, do my damdest to make mistakes but once."
The real beacon, though, encapsulates everything done right on the album.
Starting innocuously enough with some acoustic picking and Ragan singing "we have a whole world of hate at the end of our hands, and not enough love to go around / The images are burning on our walls, and our cities are burning around us all," "Whistleblower's Song" quickly explodes into an instantly rich, memorable rythm and Ragan yelling "and I won't answer a desparate call, if I don't hear the whistleblower's song." The song cascades between fiery verses and violin-accentuated bridges that work brilliantly in concert, a torrent of energy and emotion that will stay with you long after The Whistleblower ends his song.
That's also where Ragan leaves you.
Thinking about furiously tapping your feet and your steering wheel. Singing along in a bar full of people. Building a house. The important thing isn't what you're doing, just that Till Midnight is right there with you for it.