Alt country has in the last few decades risen to become its very own genre. And this is deservedly so, seeing as it has made its evolutions from the twangs of country and the slow, steady skips of rhythmic and entrancing acoustic guitar which meshes with a lonely lap steel and a soft beating of drums like the crunching of dry leaves. The instruments, working together, help from a strong musical emotion from which the singer is then able to set their often bleak tales of love and loss against.
A rising star in the alt-country universe is the singer/songwriter J. Josef McManus who spearheads the project White Owl Red. His debut record, 2014’s American Ash landed on the Americana Music Association Charts (AMA) and held a spot there for fourteen weeks. Now McManus is back with White Owl Red’s excellent sophomore record Naked and Falling.
Naked and Falling opens with the staggeringly heartbreaking “Pills and Paper” which as its title suggests is about someone coming to their own end, but before doing so they are leaving a letter explaining why. This sense of loss and haunting heartbreak is woven into the very fabric of Naked and Falling, which could also be attributed to so many different symbolic references; Angels come to mind almost immediately. Next on “Hurts Like Hell” we get a slightly sunnier picture, as McManus, in his straight-spoken twang delivers to us such lyrical gems as “I would not trade the bad times cuz I know they roll in with the good / we’ll smoke it up just like our lives were diamonds made of wood.”
But when McManus wants to break your heart he can do so quickly as he does with “Falling off the World” on which he channels such great artists as Damien Jurado and Neil Young. The guitars sound soaked in whiskey as do McManus’s sleepy vocal tones which mirror their drawn out twang as Young himself often does on so many of his greatest songs.
It’s not all fire and brimstone on Naked and Falling though, as McManus proves with his tongue and cheek story “Alcoholic Stepmom,” which echoes the old country greats like Woody Guthrie in his moments of gentle humor.
Thematically speaking Naked and Falling is an album soaked full of pain and sorrow, and is documenting those who have fallen on hard times, or just simply fallen. The record though is not in the least depressing because musically it’s so rich. The behind the scenes players; drummer Kyle Caprista, guitarist Gawain Matthews, and the lovely backing vocals of Leah Tysse, make this record what it is, a polished piece of what will surely become an alt country classic.
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