Troubadour cranks up the volume for raucous 7th.
‘Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads‘ is Memphis native Dan Montgomery’s 7th album in a music-making career of 20-plus years. It’s a pretty straight-ahead blue-collar roots rockin’ record, the sort of thing that litters the Americana firmament. It has crunchy guitars with big riffs, a well-worn and downbeat outsider sensibility and an urgent rock n roll radiance that demands attention. It’s not a unique or even particularly innovative record, but it is a damn fine one. Born in Philadelphia, blossoming in South Jersey and now resident in Memphis for over 20 years, Montgomery has experienced a peripatetic career that has shifted from spells lacking any real artistic purpose to other periods of musically driven resolution and focus. These shifts have, on occasion, been characterised by flirtations with untoward substances, though his claim to be the only music industry operative ever to have kicked drugs by touring with a rock band may be a stretch. His five-year stint as tour manager and soundman for the band the Ben Vaughn Combo clearly had a positive impact in many ways, most notably for our purposes in persuading him to take up the artistic baton for his own expression.
Now established in Memphis – where he took up a full-time job in a hospital canteen as a “really hairy, ugly lunch lady” – Montgomery has qualified for his senior rail card and grown into a process of recording and playing live with a relatively settled bunch of collaborators. ‘Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads’ is the latest result of this continuity and is billed as Montgomery returning to his “raw rock roots” of playing in garage bands around Pennsylvania. He recounts coming into possession of a Danelectro, which he plugged in and “new songs immediately came pouring out. And they were songs with riffs”. Going on to describe that “it was wild to experience my current singer/songwriter self, meeting up with that Classic Rock kid from the past”. Such reflections would suggest that he has been saving up his rockier leanings, influences and ideas over the years and that they have come rushing out all at once here.
In truth, this is a positioning statement we have heard recounted before in Montgomery’s narrative. ‘Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads’ is not really what we would call ‘raw’ or for that matter ‘rock’, shimmering as it does with a slightly more commercial sheen and some tauter mainstream inclinations than previous efforts. The record does still rock though, if in a consummately skillful rather than joyously unhinged way. It is delivered by Montgomery and his team of collaborators with a real commitment to their purpose and a palpable belief in the songs. Producer and guitarist Robert Maché’s versatile contribution helping to materialise the vision for the record, together with Candace Maché’s inimitable vocal contributions (“She’s an amazing singer… one of my favourite instruments in our band”). Throughout there is clearly an affinity between the record’s protagonists; they have been playing together for some time and have a connection that is evidently closer than just the music. They are empathetic to Montgomery’s lyrical, almost literary songs and the few production flourishes evident never stall the power and momentum of the performances.
The songs comes over like a carefully curated Southern roots-rock jukebox, mixing familiar rhythms, grooves, riffs and tunes from the country, rock, blues and soul playbook. They stick within this relatively narrow set of parameters, never straying far from the path beaten by his previous recordings and his avowed influences. The record opens with ‘Start Again’, an exquisitely hangdog slice of country-soul à la Tony Joe White about new beginnings and savouring the moment, which is something of a theme for the whole album. ‘Lonesome Train’ is just that, a railroad-rhythm rockabilly infused story song about a double-dealing character facing their final ride on the metaphorical (representing death or justice perhaps, rather than time or temptation) “long back train” taking them “up yonder”. The shuffling drums and duet vocals enhance the old-timey feel and the song comes across like Johnny and June fronting the Old 97s. The rocking ante of the album is further upped by ‘Sort it All Out’’s glammed-up collision of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and ‘Blockbuster’, the punky guitar squall of ‘In for a Penny’ and the riffing of Angus Young’s Texan doppelganger on ‘Rock Hard’. When things do slow down with ‘Baby Your Luck’s Running Bad’, Montgomery channels Lambchop and Matthew E White to deliver a lovely ‘loser’s’ ballad.
Best of all though is album centrepiece ‘Beaumont’ a “true story” if our unreliable narrator is to be believed. It arrives like a Paisley Underground song left behind by Dan Stuart, being covered by Dream Syndicate. The story opens with the couplet of the year so far: “she moved into a trailer, with a drunken sailor, but she couldn’t keep things ship shape” and over the course of 6 glorious minutes it morphs into a widescreen, almost epic, production with lush backing vocals and what sounds like a string arrangement (uncredited) taken straight from the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain period. None of these references come as a surprise when recognising that producer Maché has played with and produced Steve Wynn and the Continental Drifters among others.
As a final nod to the antecedents of this record it is high praise indeed to note that the jukebox vibe of ‘Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads’ rekindles no less a spirit than the shockingly underrated Jon Dee Graham. Despite all these evident influences though the record manages to sound inimitably and unquestionably like Montgomery and nobody else. It has a personality that shines through; earnest, committed and ever so slightly hang-dog yet always wearing a sly, mischievous sideways grin that never allows things to get too gloomy. In this way the album engages us directly; showing us what things are like on the dark side but offering us the possibility of escape through the humour and connection that can always be found at the heart of this work.