Chris Aiken is a songwriter and musician from the Pacific Northwest. Born and raised in Washington State, he currently lives in Bellingham. Breadwinner is his first album. Aiken has been writing songs for 25 years, has both been in (and is in) bands, and has won songwriting contests. He’s currently working on another record with Seattle producer and bassist, Geoff Stanfield. The majority of Breadwinner was recorded at Unknown Studio in Anacortes by Nicholas Wilbur using outboard compressors, preamps, and a “killer” plate reverb. Drums, bass, rhythm guitar and lead vocals were recorded in a week. All additional layers (pedal steel, dobro, lead guitars, harmonies) were recorded on Lopez Island by Kevin Sullivan using DAW. All final mixing was done back at Unknown Studio, while mastering was done at Resonant Sound by Ed Brooks in Seattle. There are also several musicians who gave Aiken a hand with playing various instruments. The album’s songs are a collection of originals written in 2017-18. Sounds/styles range from haunting, beautiful Nick Drake-esque fingerpicked laments, to a raucous, ripping rock song about West Coast succession that could've been written by the B-52's. Comparisons to other bands and artists include, Jayhawks, Rocky Votolato, Frank Turner, M. Ward and Willie Nelson.
The opening track “Sundress” features piano, a marching drum beat, a pedal steel guitar played by Geoff Heard and a cello played by John Platter, in this Americana tune that hints at Neil Young and the Jayhawks. “Over the Moon” has a cool, chilled vibe to it. Colin Doherty plucks away on the upright bass as more cello/violin is added by Platter – who also adds vocal harmonies with Kevin Sullivan – which sounds fantastic! “Bare Arms” reminded me of Billy Bragg and the Violent Femmes. I loved the dry, live acoustic sound to this one, as well as the mandolin and banjo (played by Sullivan) and the added “shouts” by Douglas Poole. “Western Family” weaves pedal-steel guitar with saxophone chords (played by Karl Blau), arriving at a “Nashville-meets-Motown crossroads.” This tune has got some interesting things going on for sure – I’d never thought a horn instrument and a pedal steel would sound so great together. A good slow dancing tune as well. “John Wayne's Jaw” describes an internal struggle with sobriety in contrast to the 20th century American male message of tough-guy stoicism. Some lovely cello work can be heard here, contrasted with Aiken’s guitar and the upright by Doherty. The way Aiken wrote this one, reminded me of Lou Reed and the way he would deliver his songs in a storytelling, “talk-sing” kind of way.
Next up is “Think You Feel” and it features some nicely played electric guitar, either by Bruce Harvie or Jesse Hammond. The sound and style have just the right mix of jangle pop a la R.E.M. and other early alternative-indie bands of their time. “Gravity” slows things down and features the vibes played by John Platter, which gives this tune chilled, jazzy undertone. The chorus section offers the listener a slight detour with a faster rhythm and a banjo. I really loved the melody to this one as well as the distorted guitar solo. This was by far one of my favorites – I would definitely give this one a try. Another one of Aiken’s longer songs is “Blood Moon” which mixes styles of indie folk and Americana. It features great vocal harmonies and a mellow, swinging rhythm. Also featured is the dobro (I believe) played by Geoff Heard and more cello/violin by Platter. This song felt like summer.
“Clothesline” has the best of both worlds – a little M. Ward, a little Jerry Douglas with the rest of Union Station, and perhaps just a bit of the old sappy ‘70s country a la Glen Campbell. With “Continental Divided” Aiken and company switch gears – like a lot. This one is a definite departure from the rest of the album, sounding something like ‘60s surf pop and early intellectual punk-pop via The Talking Heads. A fun-loving song – quite a surprise indeed, I got a real kick out of this one! Last, there is “Friends” a solo acoustic number with plenty of plucking by Aiken. A bittersweet tune about calling your friends up by phone or waiting around for a call you may never get. This tune was all too real for me (and I suppose a lot of other folks), as cell phones and social media have really upended how we “used to” communicate with one another. In other words, typing letters on a screen is no replacement for hearing someone’s voice in your ear. With that said, Chris Aiken’s Breadwinner is spectacular, and I would highly recommend it. I feel there is something for everyone to listen to, whether or not you’re into Americana, folk or indie.
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