Randy Steele – Songs From The Suck – Album Review
Put your jug and washboard down for a moment and put your hands together to give it up for Randy Steele ladies and gentlemen! Achieving the impossible…he’s constructed a country/folk/bluegrass record that didn’t make me want to off myself even in the slightest – in fact, I might even go as far as to say I truly enjoyed my time spent listening to Songs From The Suck. I know, I know…I must be getting’ soft in my old age…or at least more accepting…that’s what I’d think if I was reading this and I were you – but to tell you the truth, a great songwriter is a great songwriter no matter what genre you find them in.
While the title of the record might not exactly inspire you with confidence…understand that these personal tales of hardship in song are still tremendously catchy to listen to, even if lyrically Steele presents a more melancholy attitude in what he says. Songs From The Suck has a fantastic level of contrast between the brightness, sweetness & passion that the music contains and the darker themes, experiences and storylines in the lyrics that I think will help assist this material in holding up over time. So don’t be fooled…just because Randy sounds like he could easily be the headliner at the agricultural-hall town-meeting in cities of populations with less than fifty people doesn’t mean he hasn’t crafted a record that truly has something to say & something to offer the ears…push play & he’ll prove it to you.
It’s through the range of styles and sounds he’s created that Randy has shown the real skill of adaptation within songwriting. By all accounts…genre-wise…we’re on as polar-opposite sides of the musical-fence as two people can possibly be – yet I honestly sat and listened, completely captivated by the enormous level of skill and passion that Randy has put into this album without feeling forced to do so even in the slightest. I quickly became a willing participant in this country-tinged listening experience – a rarity for me that takes a real songwriter of strength to break down that wall, and I believe we’ve found that here with Randy Steele today. The twangin’ starts immediately on “Northbound 29” – but not in that uncomfortable like…you know…Deliverance kind of sound – no, it was much more pleasant and inviting than that, implying a whole lot less squealing, if any, would be involved. All kidding aside – you can hear the precision in the playing of the banjo – the violin (or fiddle I suppose…) is played with intense enthusiasm to fill the sound and the rich, thick sound of Steele’s voice & background-harmonies come across as a perfect fit in the mix right away. Great energy and progression to start-up the record – this tune snaps together quickly and starts flowing immediately, led by the fantastic vocal-melodies that fuel that heavy-heart & soul of “Northbound 29.”
Upon first impressions, you’d be likely to think you’re in for an album full of “Northbound 29” bluegrass-jams…but smartly, Steele mixes it up on the album quickly with a tender turn into “Angels With Halos.” For me – this is a lot closer to where I’m at personally…I like a sweet melody like this. As much as I found myself being cool with the wild-fiddle playing and the back & forth plodding of the bass…it was really this early-on and already in the album that I began to notice what a part Steele’s vocals really play in the music he makes. There are great sliding guitars, sweet drum-rhythms and a gentle-nature to “Angels With Halos” that all make for an entertaining listen – but it really is the sincerity and emotion that Steele puts into his words that take his songwriting to the next-level it deserves. One of those performers that, were these songs to be sung by another could potentially sound ordinary – but the authenticity that Randy brings to these tunes in between the writing and his performance is a strong connection you can audibly hear wouldn’t be able to be duplicated. I’m not saying he’s busting into opera-esque scales or even making massive shifts in his range while he sings – what I am saying is that he understands how to both write and apply the perfect amount of energy, sentiment and tone to the words he writes. It’s that kind of technique and heart that separates what he’s doing from the rest.
Sometimes…a great songwriter even knows when it’s best to step-aside and let the music do the talking, like Randy does with the instrumental jam called “Shove The Pig’s Foot A Little Closer To The Fire.” One can infer from the title that clearly Randy and I have spent our lifetimes growing up playing in a much different sandbox from each other – but there’s nothing that would stop me from getting into a track like this. For you alternative-loving readers out there…think of bands like The Tea Party, King’s X, Jethro Tull even – they all explore ideas similar to this and take that moment to recognize and salute the music. Again…you can hear a fantastic display of musicianship and instrumentation on “Shove The Pig’s Foot A Little Closer To The Fire” – and I think it says a lot about Randy’s music to put an instrumental this far up in the album’s lineup – that tells you he values the music every bit as much as the words, in my opinion.
An early highlight on Songs From The Suck, “Mobile Soon” continues the record into one of its strongest emotional displays. Everything about this song WORKS brilliantly. From the smart pacing, beautiful guitars and stunning fiddle-work – “Mobile Soon” has a tremendously powerful storyline & narrative that really connects with the head & heart. Lyrically, I think “Mobile Soon” is seriously brilliant; it doesn’t try to be whatsoever – it just IS. Everything we hear from Randy sounds so refreshingly genuine, passionate and truly resonates with us as listeners – you can tell he’s really feeling the words on “Mobile Soon” and he doesn’t try to mask the confusion in the words; he embraces it and makes honest use of that sound in a way that certainly translates to all of us that hear it. Everything from the sound in the atmosphere and the song’s clever use of space, to the gorgeous guitar-tones and Steele’s vocal-authenticity and self-reflective, personalized lyrics…”Mobile Soon” is the kind of wonderfully understated song that can’t hide or be denied – this works 100%.
I’m a slow-melody guy though…most people know that about me by now. So did “Mobile Soon” make it tougher for me to shift back into the up-tempo banjo-led rhythms of “Eliza Mae?” You BET it did! You know I’m not gonna lie to you by now dear readers, dear friends – I was initially kicking and screaming inside at the very thought of leaving behind the gentle melody & style of “Mobile Soon” and heading back into the bayou for another potential hoedown. BUT…it should be noted…that once again, it didn’t take long for Randy to pull me onto his side. The verse does what it does…I’d never deny that Randy & his crew play this one to perfection as expected by this point on the record – but what undeniably makes “Eliza Mae” special is the magic he creates in the vocal-melody of the chorus here. Sometimes a single line can save an entire song for a listener…or at least give them that extra-special moment that they always listen for – and that’s what “Eliza Mae” came down to for me. Randy’s approach to the chorus on this song once again shows that depth of a songwriter in his element with a real understanding of how to bend and shift his tone in the lyrics to really make the magic happen. “Hard Givin’” is another fine example of this ability he has to lift-up the material from ordinary to extraordinary – I think he’s done another tremendous job with the vocals on this tune. The opposite case of the song just prior, this time it’s the verse that stands-out without question – he’s done an incredible job with stringing the words together in an impressive rhythm and flow on “Hard Givin.’” The chorus simplifies its wordage, but retains its strength of emotion…and I suppose in that sense it might have a slight-edge on “Eliza Mae” for its completeness, though I’d argue that the main moments & highlights of the chorus on “Eliza Mae” is powerful enough to outshine all of “Hard Givin.’” Both solid tunes and additions to Songs From The Suck though…still no real complaints from me to be found…
…yet. I suppose if I had one it would just be the theme of “Drinking To Do.” Now…keep in mind…I don’t KNOW Randy…I don’t know what kind of life he’s led or whether or not he truly does have some “Drinking To Do.” What I DO know…is that “Drinking To Do” actually comes out sounding less like him and more like an appeal to the fans of the genre itself…and in my humble estimation & opinion – he doesn’t need to go down those roads. What he’s put together already has been more than impressive and unique enough to be separate from a lot of what’s happening in the country-music/folk-genres – to me, “Drinking To Do” sounded like a brief step backwards in the writing, albeit as well-played, performed and executed as reliably as the rest of what we’ve heard so far on the record. All I’m saying is that it sure seems to be a genre full of people that just need to get to a goddamn beer or a whiskey – and I suppose that I like Randy Steele at his best when he’s being more like himself and delivering imaginative, innovative ideas in his music…”Drinking To Do” is definitely a concept/theme that has been explored to the bottom of the bottle and back-again by many. Well-played and pleasant to listen to – I wouldn’t argue that…but based on what we’ve heard on the record so far, I felt like we needed a bit more of a connection to the material from Randy to warrant this tune ending up on the album.
As if on cue for a response to that prior observation – Steele comes back stronger than ever with the short & sweet “Visitation Day” to put the ship back firmly on course. Or the tractor back in the right direction on the field…you get what I’m sayin.’ The guitar sounds beautiful – I love the consistent & constant melody it provides on “Visitation Day” – it’s actually quite a busy performance, yet the song itself comes out feeling like it’s at a much slower-pace through the sincere way that Randy sings this one. This is another highlight example as well of his ability to create contrasting lyrics that contain brilliant descriptions that are often heartbreaking in comparison to the cheerful tones of the music itself – personally, I think this is a strong element that’s going to make his music truly last. You can listen to it surface-level and enjoy songs like “Visitation Day” for the simple-pleasures that the music offers – or you can dig right into it and go even deeper by getting into the lyrics. If this is a personal tale – MAN…I have no words…it’s heavy stuff to say the least, but for me – “Visitation Day” was an extraordinary highlight of the record and shining example of just how incredible Randy’s words can truly be at his most focused and real.
“1983” is brought to life through great placement with backing-vocals and inventive musicianship. More towards the bluegrass-side of country-music…this will definitely be some people’s jam more than it is my own – but again, impossible to not notice the professional approach and intense amount of skill that’s put into such a short timeframe. “1983” rips by pretty quickly at less than two-minutes long…I know I told you at the beginning of this review to put your jug and washboard down, but permission granted to pick’em back up and jam along with Randy on this tune if you wanna. The banjo on “1983” is exceptional – I’ll tell ya that…excellent style on full-display here and a genuine talent that contributes strongly not just to this song but certainly to this entire album as well. Keeping the rhythm up-tempo, he shifts into the friendly-vibes of “One Man Stringer” and keeps the bass-man working full-time through the movin’ & groovin’ on this twang-laden tune. A bit more traditional on the music-side perhaps, but wonderfully played as ever – I felt like the vocals and instrumentation both had equal moments to really shine on this one. Melody-wise, the vocals contribute a ton to this song’s brightness – musically, it’s got some excellent shifts in tone and transitions from verse to chorus as it moves and plenty of instrumental moments that are massively appealing to the ear and unique in their solos.
Without question for me though…the best song on this record came late into the lineup for me with “Hideaway” nearly at the end of the album; also the longest song of the set, but also one of the most bold & most honest. A real case of it’s not always what you play but how you play it – Randy Steele has one of his most fantastic performances here…and it’s a completely understated one that approaches the energy in the music perfectly. Quite often at the beginning of a verse or chorus, he’ll come out big with huge tones and notes to start it out…and through the process or singing said verse or chorus, his vocals continue to drift further and further into the mix. Now…that COULD be a happy accident…there IS a chance that Randy might read that, listen to it again and feel like he somehow lost focus or energy somewhere along the way…but I don’t think so. In my opinion, he’s calculated how to put himself into this song with extraordinary technique and precision…and I think we’ve been shown more than enough skill in the instincts & directions that have led him towards success in other previous songs on this album to believe he’s made all the right choices here. A lot of things lead him to victory here truthfully…the music is absolutely some of the best on the album and moves at such a beautifully natural pace to get the most out of each and every line & every expression from the music and vocals in every moment. As much as I try not to single out any one tune as the ultimate on a record…sometimes one just hits home so hard that you have to take that time to acknowledge the brilliance in what you hear…”Hideaway” is definitely one of those times. With what I’d consider to be one of the most universally-accessible sounds in the entire set as well – “Hideaway” is entirely appealing for the realness in its atmosphere, lyricism and music – this was a seriously satisfying tune to listen to.
Ending Songs From The Suck with an intimate, isolated performance filled with soul & a tinge or the ol’ blues in there – Steele puts another set of skills/style to use in ninety-seconds to end the album on a powerful, memorable song called “…To The New Perspective.” Some people would argue that at only a minute & a half, that any song at the end of a record with that length could only be an afterthought…and…well…maybe there’s even some truth in that – you can kind of close your eyes and picture Randy riffing this one out in the studio – BUT…I think again, you can hear from the insightful way that this final melody moves that it’s as well thought-out as the rest of what you’ve heard. Plus – I also felt like this last switch in style & tone really worked well for Randy’s rhythm & vocal-sound…it came out sounding incredibly natural and put a vibrant, refreshing spin into the final moments of Songs From The Suck.
So there you have it…don’t let this title fool you for a moment…Randy’s the real-deal and he’s certainly put together an album worth several spins, no matter what your genres of choice are. Artists with the blessing of a real songwriter’s gift will translate from sound-to-sound, style-to-style and genre-to-genre – and Randy has certainly won me over through his own genuine talent and truly gifted songwriting.
Find out more for yourself! Check out Randy Steele at his official homepage: www.randysteelemusic.com/
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