It'll probably be considered heresy to say, but when I first heard Chuck Ragan's Feast or Famine -- specifically "The Boat" -- all I could think was "this is what he should have been doing all along."
Don't get me wrong; I love Hot Water Music. I've followed them since No Division and I celebrate their entire catalog. But something about Ragan's solo material is different. Something about it is truly special in a way that most other singer-songwriters can't even hope to understand. He feels so comfortable. So at home.
Ragan's gruff baritone is firmly rooted in the American heartland. And I know that "country music" is a dirty phrase to most, but Gold Country is just that. It's raw. It's earnest. It's moving and it's captivating and it's everything one could ask for in an album.
Ragan plays to his strengths immediately in the uplifting "Glory," a violin-and-percussion-assisted track that sounds every bit like it could have been written by Bruce Springsteen. That's not to say Ragan bites Spingsteen's style -- that's far from the case -- but the similarities are there in all the best possible ways. It's in the up-tempo acoustic strumming, in the strings courtesy of violinist Jon Gaunt and the gripping way in which Ragan sings.
When Ragan belts out "Our days are numbered surely, this breath will soon be passive / Just as the wind in the mountains, carries the dust of the wanted" and leads the song to its finish, there's no doubt that he's a man who puts every bit of heart and soul into his music. While the emotion is one of Ragan's major strengths, another is the variance in tempos and styles on the record.
"The Trench" is tailor-made for a southern barroom sing-along; Ragan strums at a deliberate pace and when the scruffy vocals aren't filling the space, Gaunt's busy violin playing keeps everything moving. There's just such a feel-good air about every one of the songs on the album, and each stands on its own as much as being one part of a fluid record. "10 West" picks up where "The Trench" let off, only this time the somber strings are contrasted by a full, rousing chorus that picks up steam with each subsequent verse.
It's not just the up-tempo jaunts that give this record life, though.
For every "10 West" there's a song like "Ole Diesel" -- a slow, drown-trodden effort that allows Ragan to show his most lyrical side. Amidst the haunting violin and delicate piano strokes, Ragan weaves his tale of love and loss:
When it rains, son, it pours, and heaven opens its doors to drop hell straight from the sky / The open road's gone and the darkness is calm, enough to take your dear life / Stay awake and breathe, and struggle to stay within the lines, down the lonesome road Ole Diesel, please take me home."Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen. But Chuck Ragan, well, he's something special.