Wolfe’s continues to perplex with his sophomore album of seven songs all written by his Father-in-Law.
Afton Wolfe is a man of many hats having previously found employment in a varying array of professions, ranging from philosopher to lawyer, and neuroscientist to bartender, though it would appear that those roles were nothing more than cameos to financially support his passion to becoming a full-time songwriter and performer. 2021 saw the release of his debut album ‘Kings For Sale’, that drew on many of his influences such as Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello and in particular Tom Waits and though reviews were generally positive my esteemed colleague Rick Bayles sensed an identity crisis lurking in the grooves. Earlier this year Wolfe released a five track EP entitled ‘Twenty-Three’, which displayed a healthy slice of artistic development, with a more defined sound and sense of musical direction which augured well for this his sophomore album. It was therefore with a fair degree of excitement that I approached this new offering, eager to hear the next stage of Wolfe’s development as an artist and songwriter, only to discover that this album houses just seven tracks all written by his father-in-Law, L.H. Halliburton.
Born in Des Moines in 1948 and raised in Oklahoma to a musical family Halliburton played the folk clubs of Greenwich Village for a couple of years during the early seventies having completed his tour of duty in Vietnam before finally moving his family to Nashville. Eventually he left the music business for a career in construction but never stopped writing songs, by now numbering well over a hundred, of which he initially gave thirty to his Son-in-Law, Wolfe, who has presumably chosen the best seven for this new album, ‘The Harvest’.
Produced by Doc Sarlo, the album opens with the title track ‘Harvest’, a song that leans heavily in the direction of the music of the late sixties folk movement, full of optimism for new beginnings in its lyrical message whilst some fine flute playing from Seth Fox helps to jazz-up the rather more predictable accompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonica. The melody is catchy and the sentiment sweet, but musically it sits some distance from Wolfe’s most recent release. The harmonica is again to the fore on the following track ‘New Orleans Going Down’, a powerful bluesy number that recounts the horrors brought on by the dreadful floods the city has endured throughout the years. Wolfe’s voice is in fine form here, slightly reminiscent of Malcolm Holcombe, as he fully encapsulates the urgency within the narrative whilst the energy supplied from the rhythm section proves the perfect conduit. The third track ‘Lost Prayer’, slows the pace down, acoustic guitar and vocals supported by splashes of colour ranging from piano to violin to choral harmonies that helps create a seventies Outlaw Country vibe drawing comparison to the legendary Waylon Jennings. It is possible, knowing what one does about the songwriter, that these songs may well have been written during this period of time.
However, the following number ‘Hello Mr Wolf’ does present itself as a bit of an outlier. Lyrically the narrative attempts to take on the form of a parable that never quiet reveals it true meaning leaving the listener somewhat perplexed with the closing phrase “We’re all cursed by morals and rules and wish that we were raised by wolves. The dog of gods”. If the storyline itself is confusing then the supporting musical arrangement feels just as much off kilter with an annoying percussive sound reminiscent of hollow blocks of wood being randomly struck, without either a rhythmic pulse or a supportive base that simply distracts from the song. ‘Til The River No Longer Flows’, at least has a more discernible structure, all be it a well trodden one, with its driving beat propelled by an intro of full blooded rockin’ blues guitars. Further into the track the piano offers a scattering of colour while the rhythm section again manfully pins everything down. Once more this song feels and sounds like it’s come straight out of the seventies and while Wolfe’s vocals are strong they do little to distract the rather retro feel. The penultimate track ‘Mississippi’, is pure r’n’b straight out of Sam Cooke’s book of soul, complete with a swinging brass section, but here the rhythm section seem to have left the hand break on, or possibly gone for a well deserved rest, as the track tends to plod along rather than dance.The album closes with ‘Here To Stay’, which with its sparse arrangement of piano, vocals, and melancholy delivery, inevitably conjures up comparison with Tom Waits that was so prevalent on Wolfe’s debut. The lyrical narrative, possibly due to the simple arrangement, does feel less dated with its tale of longing and loneliness as relevant today as it’s ever been.
In truth ‘The Harvest’, is a confusing album with all bar one of its tracks offering enough to be an enjoyable listen. The songs, though well structured are lacking in much originality, choosing to traverse a far more familiar path, and though the band are tight and on point throughout the album, one can’t help but feel that the overall arrangement contributes to a rather retro, dare one suggested dated, character of an album that clocks in at a rather meagre 28 minutes. Therefore, rather than being an album that continues Wolfe’s forward trajectory it feels much more like a side project, which for someone with just one album and one EP under his belt, seems a rather perplexing career move.