A good debut album that could’ve been that little bit leaner.
‘Appalachian Gothic’ is the debut solo offering from Erik Vincent Huey who, under the name Cletus McCoy, fronts cowpunk band The Surreal McCoys (a band who are a lot of fun – check out their ‘Whole Lotta Folsom’ on YouTube). This new album shows the more serious side of Huey, as he digs into his family history to tell tales of life in the communities of the West Virginia coal fields. Huey’s great-grandfather went to the U.S. from a mining village in Ireland, and both his grandfather and his father also ended up in the mines, so Huey is able to draw inspiration for his songs from a long family tradition of mining. The result is a pretty good batch of songs, though the album title is a little misleading. “Appalachian Gothic” does conjure up images of dark, brooding songs, shot through with misery and a music to match, full of minor keys and growling bass lines. Opening track, ‘Appalachian Blues’ does have something of that feel about it and certainly establishes a darker mood that runs through the album, but it’s not all doom and gloom by any stretch of the imagination. Beyond that first track, what we have here is a good set of, predominantly, outlaw country songs, a couple of which tend toward heartland rock on occasion. Many of these songs deal with the problems around mining and mining communities; songs like ‘The Devil is Here in These Hills’ and ‘Death County’, with the stories of hard, backbreaking work and of miners being looked down on by the wider community, sometimes with devastating retribution as a result.
Even among all this heavy subject matter, there’s a place for songs of love and, inevitably it seems, loss. These are, a little oddly, among the more upbeat songs, like ‘Winona’ and the country croonings of ‘That’s What Jukeboxes Are For’, a fine duet with Laura Cantrell. There’s even room for a little humour amongst all the darkness, albeit humour that’s nearly as black as the coaldust that is sprinkled all over these songs. ‘You Can’t Drink All Day’ could be a companion song to Eric Church’s ‘Drink in My Hand’, with its dubious advice that, “if you ain’t doin’ it all day, then you’re doin’ it all wrong” and its observation that “I drink all day now, like I’m in a country song”! There’s also the gallows humour of ‘Dear Dad’, a song that suggests there’s no love lost between Huey and his father. Of course, it could just be for the sake of the song but the mention of what he plans to do after his father has died leads one to suspect they’re not on each other’s Christmas Card list! This is one of the catchiest songs on the album and you may well find yourself singing this for days after you’ve heard it. Huey definitely has the ability to write a good, catchy lyric and his melodies are also strong, if a little predictable sometimes.
All criticism is subjective but this is an album that is, ultimately, just a little difficult to get to grips with. There are a lot of good songs here and they’re well presented, but the album takes some odd twists and turns that stop it from settling well as an entity. You have a track like ‘The Devil is Here in These Hills’, which is a song full of depth and heartfelt lyrics about the plight of the Appalachian mining man. It’s a solid piece of country music that tells a sad truth about a very real situation. This is followed by ‘The Bride of Appalachia’, which is a spoken monologue over an uninspiring, vaguely bluesy backing, that sounds melodramatic and not a little pretentious. This, in turn, is then followed by ‘A Heart Disease Called Love’, written by our very own John Cooper Clarke (a solitary non-original song) and reimagined here as a wonderful down-and-dirty piece of bar room rock ‘n’ roll, with a sax riff that’s reminiscent of ‘Whatever Happened to Saturday Night’ from The Rocky Horror Show. It’s one of the catchiest songs on the album, and there’s no shortage of catchy songs spread across the 13 tracks. There are also a couple of strong songs lauding the role of the unions in protecting the rights of the miners, ‘The Battle of Uniontown’ and the singalong ‘Yours in the Struggle’ before the album finishes with the slightly lacklustre ‘A Coal Miner’s Son’. It seems a weak ending for the album and another misjudgment in the way the album has been assembled.
This is a decent album with some top-drawer songs that anyone could be proud of but it seems to be trying too hard to fit all the tracks into the loose concept of the album and that’s to the detriment of the listening experience as a whole. The songs that work, and that is the majority of them, work really well. Unfortunately, the ones that don’t really stand out, and you can’t help feeling that someone should’ve told Huey that the album could’ve lost a couple of tracks and been the better for it. The producer for this album was Eric Ambel, a fine musician and producer who has worked with a whole string of top artists, including the excellent Bottle Rockets and the Yahoos. His musical production here can’t be faulted, drawing some good performances out of a fine bunch of musicians, with Neil Thomas and Cody Nilsen, on accordion and pedal steel respectively, being particularly noteworthy, and he makes the most of Huey’s assured voice and delivery, but perhaps he could’ve been a bit firmer about what did and didn’t make the cut.
The other slight concern is where does Erik Vincent Huey go from here? He seems to have poured out a lot of strong feelings about his family roots and the politics of the Appalachian mining communities into the writing for this album, so what does he do next? Will he use this as a springboard to push on to better things and hone his very promising songwriting skills, or has he poured all he has into this, obviously intensely personal, album? Hopefully, this is just the start for an artist who, on this album, shows he has the skill to craft good songs across a range of country styles, he just needs to be a little more ruthless when it comes to final track selection.