May 20, 2015
Album Review: Whitey Morgan and the 78s - Sonic Ranch
An album doesn't have to be the be-all-end-all showcase of varied sounds and emotions to grab me as something special. It doesn't have to own a perfect balance of upbeat and plaintive moods. It doesn't have to intersperse rockers with ballads with mid-tempos at optimal track positioning. An album simply has set to some part of my psyche afire, open an electrical circuit between me and the music that never switches off for the entire length of the collection.
Whitey Morgan and the 78s' new album Sonic Ranch flips on the neon and never lets it fade from first note to last. It's a right-in-the-pocket ten-track slab of living, breathing, honky-tonking, country music perfection.
Morgan wrote 4 of the 10 songs on Sonic Ranch, the rest being well-chosen covers - or just new versions of older songs - whatever you wanna call 'em. While that may be a questionable approach to some purists (who conveniently forget that Jennings, Jones, and Nelson all sang other people's songs…frequently), it's not even a minor issue for me. Sonically, there's nothing that would prick your ears to the fact that Sonic Ranch is a patchwork of tunes from different artists and writers. Lyrically, the themes are consistent, and besides the obvious high-water marks set by the Tom T. Hall ("That's How I Got to Memphis") and Townes Van Zandt inclusions, there's no glaring variance in the quality of the songwriting.
It's amazing how an artist who's so comfortable in their own boots can almost create something entirely new out of another artist's vision. Whitey takes The Damn Quails' "Me and the Whiskey" from its more airy and folksy origin right into the smokiest barroom in town, sets up the amps and gets badass. As much as I like the original (and freaking love the Quails), Morgan makes this song belong to him and his 78s, turning the thoughtfulness of the former version into a swaggering statement of hard-headed defiance.
Morgan's own "Low Down on the Backstreets" continues the theme of the down-on-love high-on-the-town drinking man. "Take me down on Main Street, play me an old country song, when I get lowdown on the backstreet" he sings, and you're never quite sure if the confidence in his voice is from the strong drink or some inner bravado.
After rumbling through a fine cover of TVZ's "Waitin' Round to Die," Morgan digs in to a stunning take on Scott H. Biram's "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue." The cocksureness of the album openers here takes a backseat to a bit more self-reflection and confession. Still, it's hard for a man with the thundering pipes of Whitey Morgan to sound anything more than a little contrite, and that contrast of intent vs. delivery adds to the magic of this adaptation. It's a clear standout on an album without low spots, and one of the strongest covers I've ever had the pleasure of hearing.
"Good Timing Man" removes the mask, and may be the true heart of this record. It's a treatise on the differences between the real man and the country singer who'll "put on a smile and my old guitar" then go backstage to drink away his misery. It's one of the most honest moments on Sonic Ranch, and provides a balance to and an explanation for all the bluster early on and afterwards.
Sonic Ranch is as strong a "real country album" as you'll hear in 2015. It's refreshing to hear such unfiltered honky-tonk music in this day and age of contrived edge and softened edges. Morgan and the 78s' version of modern outlaw country is a comparable sound to what Sturgill Simpson is doing, but with a blue collar approach and a more pronounced low-end. This album may not drive Morgan to acceptance/hype in the same circles as Jason Isbell and Sturgill, but it's a big statement album that will bring in new fans and make old ones very happy. It's my favorite album of the year thus far, and obviously highly recommended.
Sonic Ranch is available on Morgan's site, iTunes, Amazon, etc.