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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

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John Moreland w/ Mark Utley
From the "potential Album of the Year" stack, singer/songwriter John Moreland from Tulsa, OK offers up 10 new long, deep looks into the sorrowful and second-guessing soul of an emotion-swept male, assembled under the title In The Throws from the Last Chance Records. "I heard truth is what songs are for. Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore…" is the line that people are quoting to both exemplify Moreland's wordsmith skills, and to throw back in his face as fallacy as critics and fans alike line up to herald Moreland's In The Throes songwriting effort.
If John Moreland was a boxer, he'd be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.
In The Throes builds from a sparse acoustic footing, with some light country elements floating just above the surface in a classic Americana songwriter approach. This allows the listener to focus on the lyrics, and for the lyrics to come alive in the open space. At the same time, Moreland doesn't get so enamored with his own stories to ignore the music and melody. The song "Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore" makes great use of a steel guitar hook that rises to compliment the song's vision. One of the album's anchors, "Break My Heart Sweetly," features the quietest, most distant piano strokes possible, like the sound of tears tickling the cheek. Moreland also shows a great sense of timing, especially in the acoustic-only "3:59 AM" where he holds the song back at points until you feel the full weight of the moment before moving on, while also showing off his solid guitar picking skills.
john-moreland-in-the-throesBut the poetry embedded in In The Throes is what has this project incredibly buzzed. One line after another, John Moreland charms you with incredible depth, and a use of perspective that seems to relate so intimately with your personal narrative. The songs both tell a story, and deliver lines that can be taken autonomously and still have deep meaning. This is a songwriters album if there ever was one.
The worry about In The Throes is that it only works in mournful grays, delivered in the slow-to-mid tempo. You can put together a great album of songs, and that is what John Moreland has done here. But that doesn't mean you have a great album. To accomplish this you need some more spice and texture, or a truly original concept. This is the way you keep the ear engaged and give those songs that "nobody cares about anymore" a wider audience. The recordings and songs all work well but never reach outside Moreland's comfort zone, never really convey a sense of hope to help reset the palette.
But beyond a deeper vision for the album or something to spice it up, In The Throes still belongs in the company of the year's best simply from the strength of its songs, even if there's a few other projects just above it in a strong field. In times gone by, an album like this would have been pilfered by bigger names looking for top shelf songs to cut. Now it's relegated to entertaining the ears of a privileged few. But albums of the caliber of In The Throes tend to go far in opening new doors.
Does anybody give a damn about songs anymore? When taking a wide perspective of the popular music landscape, this generalization is certainly true. And with an album like In The Throes, it shows why this loss of focus on artistry by the masses is so unfortunate.
Two guns up.


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