An EP that makes you wish it was an album.
According to the Press Release that accompanied this EP, “Southern Neo-Beatnik AFTON WOLFE Returns with Mystical, Masterful New EP”! Whilst not entirely sure what constitutes a “Southern Neo-Beatnik”, there is certainly something both mystical and masterful about this recording. The last time we reviewed a release from this artist, 2021’s debut album, “Kings For Sale”, Wolfe was dismissed as something of a Tom Waits wannabe, though not without talent. A lot can happen in almost two years and, in that time, Wolfe would seem to have made a very solid transition from wannabe to being very much his own man. It would seem that Afton Wolfe has, on this recording, finally found his own voice. That voice still has its signature gravel growl, but the Waits-like monotone has gone and a far more definite and soulful individuality emerges.
Wolfe has, apparently, a mystical connection to the number 23 and has said “The number 23 is Magic, and as such, it has been significant in my musical journey, so my delusional apophenia led me to release these 5 (2+3) songs together on 2.3.23 for the purpose of conjuring all the Magic I possibly could from this Music.” Hmmm – whatever the reasons, this is a really entertaining and enjoyable collection of songs. The package is kicked off by the lead single from the E.P, ‘Cry’, a soulful song about the emotional weight of grief and grieving that gives more than a nod to the doo-wop sound of the ‘50s. This is one of Afton Wolfe’s own songs and shows just what an excellent writer he is. The backing vocals on this track are particularly impressive and include the voice of Regina McCrary, daughter of one of the founding members of Gospel pioneers, The Fairfield Four, who has previously provided backing vocals for the likes of Dylan, Carrie Underwood and Margo Price. Wolfe is moving in high circles these days, and deservedly so on the quality of this release.
Next track up is ‘The Moon Is Going Down’, a song about the impact of the pandemic lockdowns and written by Nashville songwriter Ryan B. Case. It’s a good, fairly straightforward country song that draws a fine vocal performance from Wolfe but it’s slightly eclipsed by the third track on this release, the powerful and epic ‘Truck Drivin’ Man’, an outstanding song about a series of murders in Mississippi that really sends shivers down your spine. Wolfe has said of the song “Mark Mann ( the writer of the song) is an institution in the rock scene in Hattiesburg, Mississippi – my hometown. The song, originally released in 1998, is about the murder of “Lot Lizards” – truckstop prostitutes – and I was working at the “shiny new convention center” when it came out. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me.” You can understand why, because this song is about as dark as it gets and it is superbly interpreted by Wolfe, whose voice perfectly suits the song and infuses it with a mournfulness that is fitting for such a bleak subject. The other star of this song is Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, whose violin playing on the track is nothing short of magnificent. It is, without a doubt, the high point of the EP.
Another thing that strikes you about this EP is how well it’s laid out. Following on from ‘Truck Drivin’ Man’ you need something in a lighter vein and you get the perfect pick me up in ‘So Purple’, a song written by Wolfe and Seth Fox, who contributes the flute playing on a jazzy sounding track that seems to celebrate differences coming together and the connection between individuals and the world around us. The flute playing really lifts the track up and is slightly reminiscent of the playing of that great jazz flautist, Herbie Mann, which is no mean feat.
The EP ends with another solo Wolfe song, ‘Late Nite Radio’ which, again, demonstrates how far this artist has come in judging the balance of a recording, because it is the perfect closer for this collection of songs. Once again, there’s that hint of jazz influence that seems to infuse Wolfe’s sound and help it to distinguish itself from the chasing pack. Seth Fox is on this track again, this time pushing it along with some nice sax playing and there’s a harmony vocal that perfectly highlights Wolfe’s lead voice. The song is, apparently, about coming to terms with letting go of someone but it has that perfect late-night vibe that you associate with an intimate radio show where you feel a connection to the DJ – “Late Nite Radio/ Play a song I know/ So I can sing along/ So I can pretend that I’ve done nothing wrong”.
This is a strong set of songs from an artist who is emerging as a real source of cleverly crafted tales of urban Americana. He’s producing a genuinely original melting pot of musical styles that makes his music stand out from the crowd and it’s exciting to imagine what we might hear from him next. In a near-perfect collection of songs, the only real fault is that there are only five of them. Add another five songs of this caliber and you’d have a strong contender for one of the landmark albums of the year.