The dictionary definitions of classic is either “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind” or “very typical of its kind”. The former definition requires time, for something to mature – this might be applied to a classic of the rock genre say, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ or from the punk genre the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’. But is this correct? Both of the aforementioned albums were described as classic from the moment they came out, and each one was described as being timeless examples of the form and indeed their particular genre (whether you agree with it or not). That would suggest that time is not necessarily an ingredient required for the definition of classic when applied to an album or for that matter to anything.
Which leads me to my choice of classic album. It is not in any way well known; it is not in any way forged over time into classic status. It is and therefore will forever be, however, a stone-cold classic of the americana genre. Cory Hanson is a member of Wand, a West Coast band with a psychedelic bent; he has also been a member of Ty Segall’s band The Muggers. Hanson released his first solo album in 2016 ‘The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo’ but it is his second solo album Pale Horse Rider’ that concerns us here. There was no expectation before release, albeit being an interesting artist with side projects and a solid band producing good work. Who knew this was coming? It is an extraordinary work, completely encapsulating a vision and a sound that could define the genre if one so chose to apply to a criteria. The album should be listened to as a whole but many of the tracks lend themselves to individual repetition.
‘Paper Fog’ opens things with dreamy pedal steel and acoustic guitar and Hanson’s nasal, soulful voice. As the piano drops in so do the backing vocals and it becomes a woozy, modern successor to ‘Horse With No Name’. As it progresses there is a beautiful lead guitar break that heads skywards, feeling as if almost circling the barren valleys of Southern California. If this is a trip, it’s a joyful, mellow, gently unfolding one which then quietly fades into bird song which in turn segues into ‘Angeles’. A paean to his hometown and yet not really. A series of non-sequiturs and glimpsed sights tied up with experiences real and unreal stirred into a lyric narrated over a simple guitar riff and again that gorgeous pedal steel, lush backing vocals and splashes of piano. These two opening songs set a clear template for the record; this is an album that requires deep diving and yet has a surface so smooth and beguiling that it’s easy to drown into its rhythms on the very first listen. The piano coda to ‘Angeles’ is at once enticing and mysterious and the closing synthesiser leads us straight into the title track ‘Pale Horse Rider‘. A sedate traditional piano lead ballad that swings in a gentle, subtle way with Hanson’s vocals up close in the mix. There’s viola sitting behind the vocals and the production builds to the glorious, understated chorus. If one had to put together 3 tracks in sequence on an album as a playlist these three are hard to beat. There then follows a spare, discordant synthesised instrumental; a pallet cleanser that speaks of alienation and sadness which in turn leads into the final track on side one. This being a classic album it’s on vinyl (other formats are available!) ‘Bird of Paradise’ is a narrative of a dream, again gentle guitar, the production pure silk as Hansen talks about his dream and memories. It is a love song, a song of desire and of longing. Hanson has a thing with codas and the delightful play out from this track is again exquisite and emotionally resonant.
Side 2, because we’re still on vinyl, begins with ‘Limited Hang Out’, a simple parched guitar and a gentle backbeat recalling ‘Harvest’ era Neil Young perhaps – by now Hanson’s voice has you in its grip and the lyrics begin to demand your attention with the images they hold and inspire. They are not simple narratives, more poetic observations reflected through various themes including ghosts, skies, animals and the relentless sun amongst many other things. It is a hot album, there is a feeling of the heat of the desert, vacant baked concrete car lots; a shimmering reality. ‘Vegas Knights’ is a simpler affair with beautiful viola accompaniment, definitely a song about a love that’s lost yet not sad nor melancholic more reflective, part of life. And once more there follows an instrumental, ‘Surface To Air’- it is spare, alienated and mournful, leading us by the hand into the biggest track on the album ‘Another Story From The Centre Of The Earth’. A gentle electric guitar and backbeat take us into an almost ‘Cortez The Killer’ vibe (although far less funky) as Hansen reveals his poetry, with pedal steel washing his canvass blue behind him and his pin sharp guitar highlighting the blank verse. “The only animals are blind naked ghosts and salt water wine is drank at night in the fluorescent moonlight” The track threatens to explode before the final verse which is a deathly calm until the line “and the noise of the upstairs neighbours” allows it to really explode with a wild guitar screaming of Ol Black and Nirvana new. A desperate wrenching of notes, unpolished and anxiously seeking answers in feedback and echo. A desert raven seeking the updrafts from the parched valley before a gentle piano motif brings him back to ground. The final track is ‘Pigs’ and Hanson lets us down gently with a yearning love song. It’s almost the drive back to reality after the dream of the album. All the ingredients are here; strong guitar, piano pedal steel, exquisite vocal performance and supreme song writing along with a killer coda.
This album was recorded in 2019 and 2020 and released into the jaws of the pandemic and maybe was ignored in that melee but you have my word this is a classic americana album. It reeks of California – not the beaches and bars but a darker, hotter, dryer place where dreams turn to truths or vice versa. Hanson has a subversiveness which makes his videos delightful and unsettling but the honesty of the music and his art is total on this album. I urge listening and indeed purchase.