Dense with inspiration
Whether listeners are new to Ian Noe’s work or long-time fans, the expectation is the same: the Kentucky native writes of an America where heartbreaks make life more bearable, and where pictures are still worth a thousand words. In his latest album River Fools & Mountain Saints, Noe’s throwback compositional style and his band’s seasoned charisma encourage country music fans from all walks of life to embrace paradox and suffering.
The opening track on the album is a rockabilly anthem called “Pine Grove (Madhouse),” and it begins with a curvy electric lick behind the wail and swell of pedal steel. It is unlike many other songs by Noe, who generally prefers to keep careful control over his thumped-out acoustic basslines and vocals; it hits less like “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” and more like something from Neil Young or The Wolf Brothers. Listeners will sense the fun and spirited gambol that Noe must walk with some days, and when the organ keys up in the chorus they will intimate the artist’s southern roots. The drummer keeps good time throughout the song, behind a honky-tonk piano. Meanwhile, thoughtful and compounded imagery breaks through to the listener in tandem with the tuneful rock in lyrics like: “Out on the ridge where they’re rolling, mama/stray dogs and sirens fight/ barred all the doors / nailing two by fours / brushed off the coal oil light.”
On the second track called “River Fool,” Noe is a bit more predictable in laying down his signature sound– aesthetically akin to the likes of country icons such as Townes Van Zandt or Jackson Browne. According to a Last.fm article, as one would expect the artist grew up emulating “the great ones of folk:” Bob Dylan, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie and others. Noe’s musical education is apparent in “River Fool,” a thumped-out bass walk with mandolin and fiddle. While the band has fun with the harmonies in choral lines like: “Just a river fool / on good ol’ mountain wine,” it is a thoughtful ditty with interesting flatpicking and string work.
Songs like “Lonesome as It Gets” remind us that Noe promotes the underdogs of America’s small towns: folks who struggle to keep going or die trying. The tune is a novel turn on the lonesome bachelor trope. It may leave traditional country music listeners wondering: “How else could anyone say it? Anything else would be trite.” Lines that characterize the song’s protagonist, himself a “Clown ‘neath a paper crown / juggling in an empty tent,” are masterful for their lyricism and colloquial charm. The drummer opens up a bit here, too– carrying and driving along the pick-up sections in the tune.
“Strip Job Blues 1984” helps galvanize listeners’ attention to the album with impeccable vocals and a fine performance from Noe’s jug-bass style backup band, while “Tom Barrett,” and “Ballad of a Retired Man” again present authentically-rendered Americana. They are timeless tales from a novel point of view. Bold altruisms pepper the tracks, with lines like “They say what you gain don’t compare to what you lose.” The song has a great mandolin solo, with the fiddle sawing right behind, but Noe’s lyricism (accented by rhyming couplets and triplets and compounded imagery) really takes center stage in the album.
While all of the songs on the album take some unique musical stances, songs like “Burning Down the Prairie” develop a vibe which highlights Noe’s breadth as a musician. The acoustic lick rolls coolly through dark chords beneath more bold imagery (“Someone out there somewhere’s been stalking like a mountain lion”) before evolving into a rocking bluesy electric breakdown. The song’s finishing kick transitions smoothly to the slow and steady “Appalachia Haze,” which paints a somber view of Appalachian mountain life through the view of several striking personalities. The truly interesting quality of songs like these is the rawness and reality that they express– both through simplicity and through profound observation.
The final track– ”Road May Flood / It’s a Heartache”– serves perhaps as the artist’s outlet for loneliness, while also preserving the glowing hopeful ember that exists in all of his music. The track is easy to appreciate, as the notion of a “haunted life” seems to typify many of America’s drifters. When the song drops into “It’s a Heartache,” a tune popularized by musicians like Bonnie Tyler and Rod Stewart, listeners may find the subtle beauty to be a bit of a tear-jerker.
While Ian Noe is notoriously thoughtful in his compositions and musicianship, and tasteful to no fault, his new album River Fools & Mountain Saints is dense with inspiration. It is well worth the listen, especially for new fans.