Jack Wilson splits his time between the comfy, southern warmth of Austin and the cooler, sopping city that is Seattle. While he’s in Seattle, he’s backed by the Wife Stealers, and elsewhere, it’s pretty much just him. On his latest self-titled, Wilson zig-zags between full-on Americana rock, and solemn, poetic lullabies about places and people of timeless impact. He opens his album with the sound of footfalls on loose gravel — a sound that is immediately evocative of distance and mindful wandering — a more than appropriate prelude to an album that looks to transport the listener to the image of Americana locked away in Wilson’s head.
Typically, having a band to back you up — even just having other musicians present — is a sure fire way to (1) make singer/songwriters tighten-up, and (2) fill out those acoustic ballads that were originally composed in the solitude of a bedroom. (Wilson even sings “anyone sounds strong in a living room all alone,” on the track “Dogwood Days”.) The Wife Stealers and other various musicians who played with Wilson leave their mark on more raucous songs, and lend the aesthetic to more alt-country tendencies than they do folk rock. Right from the get-go “Valhalla”, the album opener, allows Wilson to show off a little narrative-riffing before an expansive chorus explodes through the cones with bittersweet Ryan Adams flare. Other tracks follow a similar format disposed of on the opener and other rockers on the record by counterpointing guitar and heavy rhythm section work against spacious and evocative choruses. “The Cure” stands out by a quick country shuffle and complimentary horns over which Wilson pleads, “Oh I swear I’m not the same, not the same.”
While these tunes might wow a crowd during performance, they’re nothing more than your standard country/folk rock that you might hear on a Wednesday night out at the Hole in the Wall. It’s even hard to listen to the album closer, “The Truth” without the context of a live setting. As a progressive, country anthem, it’s the perfect set closer, but on record, the ‘good will to all men’ message struggles to fit. In the full band setting, Wilson can’t quite find his footing or his strength and those treads heard in opening start to sound like steps of caution.
The most rewarding moments on this album are found in Wilson’s indulgences. “Red Feather” features Wilson’s mellow, mid-range humming over beautiful finger-picking — a perfect transport to Wilson’s vision of Americana: humble, homely, with earthy character, and probably the exact feeling that the wanderer had as he walked along the gravel in the album’s beginning. “Clean”, a ‘shaking the drug habit’ tune sung in major harmony is a winner that does a lot with simple melody and pushy fiddle solos. “Dogwood Days” paints a clever scene of two lovers trying to get along and help each other tending to the house during the holidays. It’s a direct looking glass into Wilson’s psyche, a place where his strongest abilities — lyricism and sentimentality — are set to shine: “I know home’s just a word and a dream and a picture and you and me.” Wilson has the distinct ability to write about intangibles and he does so beautifully on the breathtaking “I’ll Do the Same” and “Fell Inside.”
Trying to fit a folk musician into a bar band isn’t easy. Neither is trying to put country rock into a folk album, but Wilson finds a neutrality among his influences that allows him to pull it off. He is a studied songwriter that has some really good tunes and his debut solo work sets the bar high for his first individual effort outside of the confines of the Wife Stealers. Through moments of bar rockers about druggies and relationships and lucid, melancholy gems about the same, Jack Wilson — and his wanderer — find solid ground