Death Won't Send A Letter. The title stitched across the cover of Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons' debut full-length (Black Seal) reads like an abrupt warning shot across the bow. Live like there isn't much living left to do. Don't be afraid to adapt. Don't be afraid to change.
From the moment this glorious piece of recorded roots rock embarks, it's clear this kind of sentiment has a hold on Chisel. This, of course, is not the first we've heard from the Wisconsin based songwriter. Last year's Cabin Ghosts EP provided a stoic introduction to his work, pairing stay at home recordings with precise, live renditions, for an intimate, mostly acoustic set of songs. Here, Chisel proves he adept to change, broadening his musical palette dramatically, with great effect.
Putting his best foot forward from the get go, Chisel introduces his big new studio sound with "Born Again"; a rousing, rollick of a song that plays tribute to the kind of wild and delirious lifestyle no doubt demanded of any promising new musician. Co-written by Brendan Benson, Chisel testifies that life's for the living ("I've been living in a motel of sin. But I wouldn't trade my life for the one you're living"), leading drunken plunks on a standup bass, blasts of organ that will send you straight to church (that is, if this wasn't a song about rejecting religion), and the kind of rollicking, driving rhythm section that was altogether missing from the EP.
It's big and soulful approach; one that's extremely reliant on rock bottom bass lines and the energetic slap of the drums. "My Heart Would Be There", though dialed down in tempo, is another such song, featuring wonderful melodic interplay between Chisel's chalky rich vocals, and that of his lovely accompaniment, Adriel Harris. Other memorable moments include "Curious Thing" - a sneaky bit of studio work indeed - and "Angel of Mine".
Yet for all these songs' merits, it's still those moments where Chisel pairs that god-given, flying from the gut, voice of his with more subdued acoustic fare where he seems at his absolute best. Repurposed from Cabin Ghosts, "So Wrong For Me" is simple and devastating; the kind of tune that brings with it a certain melancholy beauty only the very best songwriters seem to accomplish. Admitting, "I just loved what I could and threw it all away", his words stumble and trail off in a desperate, yet appropriate way. Crushing... And "Tennessee" - mostly acoustic, though accentuated with a hint of syrupy pedal steel - is divine in the way Chisel carries the melodic weight, underscored by Harris' lilting harmonies on both the choruses and bridge. It's Chisel's tune for the ages (so far); as if any time or place could hold it.
Which, come to think of it, might be precisely the point of this entire collection. The album provides a place where time will fly in every which direction if you let it. It's American music for tracing cherished memories, settling in the beauty of the here and now, or gazing wide-eyed into the future. The melodies, the textures, the compositions, the lyrics - the songs as a whole, really - are timeless, and demand a personal and emotional reaction from their listener...like life itself, really. Which, by the way, you best get on living. After all, Death Won't Send a Letter. - David Pitz