Chuck Ragan's recorded output since Hot Water Music's 'indefinite hiatus' suggests that the man is capable of writing songs in his sleep, and while that also might suggest that there might be a few duds here and there, he instead continues to entrench himself in quality project after quality project, and his collaboration with Austin Lucas and family, Bristle Ridge, is no different.
When word of this release got out, it was said that Bristle Ridge would contain three Chuck Ragan originals, three Austin Lucas originals, three Ragan/Lucas collaborative originals, one original by Bob Lucas and two old-time standards called "Darling Corey" and "Distant Land to Roam." While the sheer amount of collaboration going on here could have potentially caused songs to be hastily thrown together, there's absolutely nothing on Bristle Ridge that suggests these songs were created by anything other than a tight, cohesive unit. And the music on this record owes a lot to the roots music of yesteryear -- banjos, fiddles and acoustic guitars adorn each song, portraying a down-home sense of honesty and character that's positively rooted in Americana.
"Bloody Shells" kicks off Bristle Ridge in dark fashion -- Ragan's urgent vocal delivery in the verses molds well with the grim, dramatic instrumentation utilized, and Lucas's strategically placed background howls enhance the already grim imagery. Lucas takes a turn singing lead on "Bells," and his vocal style is much cleaner and almost jovial, for lack of a better word. The choral background vocals here are akin to something one would hear on an old-time gospel record. The harmonica sprinkled throughout "Cold Night" ought to be familiar to any fan of Ragan's other work, and the backup vocals give the song a nice, recognizable hook. "Hold My Bed" is a classic folk ballad, complete with a weeping fiddle and harmonica, and Ragan and Lucas playing off each other and harmonizing perfectly.
The band rears back and allows the vocal stylings of Austin Lucas to take center stage on "Sun or Snow," and he nails every line with unabashed conviction while displaying an impressive range. The minimal banjo plucking and fiddle playing enhance the song without being too dynamic, thus allowing the overall tone to be dictated by Lucas.
The second half of Bristle Ridge roars to a start with "Darling Corey," a foot-stomping bluegrass tune with blazing instrumentation and goosebump-inducing harmonization, and the reverb applied to the vocals on "Distant Land to Roam" and "The Light" gives those songs an added degree of introspection. "Heading Down" is a bouncy bluegrass tune, but the busy vocal interplay in the chorus is rather distracting. The aforementioned "The Light" sounds like a Feast or Famine outtake, with harmonica bookending each verse and Ragan bellowing over a simple acoustic guitar part (with some choice background vocals courtesy of Lucas).
"Judgment Day" closes the record on a high note, with the whole band of collaborators jamming together in harmony. A catchy fiddle part carries the song while seemingly everyone gets in on the singing, creating a fun atmosphere to end the record (though the lyrical content is not as bright and sunny).
Bristle Ridge could serve as an introduction or a refresher course for anyone interested in quality American roots music. There's a lot here to like and very little to keep it from being one of the best records of the year in the genre. The musicianship is fantastic, the songwriting top-notch and the execution strong.