Master songwriter delivers his twelfth studio album that confidently stands alongside the best of his career to date.
There are few songwriters of the twenty-first century whose cannon of work stands up to the quality that Rod Picott has delivered since his debut album ‘Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues’, arrived back in 2001. Now, some twenty-two years later we have the release of his twelfth studio album ‘Starlight Tour’, which comes on the back of a busy period that has seen three albums released in as many years. As with his most recent albums, this new release has been produced by Neilson Hubbard, who has previously worked with the likes of John Prine and Lucinda Williams. On this release Hubbard displays his dexterity by taking responsibility for drums and percussion while fully paid-up fans will recognise the names of regular contributors Lex Price on bass and Mandolin and Juan Solorzano who shows off his musical prowess over a host of instruments that includes electric, acoustic and pedal steel guitars, piano, glockenspiel and trumpet. Where this album differs from past recordings is in its minimalistic approach that sees Picott enter the studio with just ten songs, nothing held back in reserve, and just five days to turn them into the best record possible. One can naturally assume that with these constraints a certain amount of preparation would have taken place with all potential material carefully weeded and pruned before the tapes started to roll, the end result being an album that is as raw, both lyrically and musically, as anything he has recorded before.
The album opens with ‘Next Man In Line’, which find Picott confronting, possibly for the first time, the question of mortality and the changing of the guard. His mothers passing away some three years ago left him to become a carer for his 83-year-old father, a man whose spirit and demons have through the years been the subject matter for so many of Picott’s finest songs, and even now, as he slowly fades towards that long goodbye he is still providing inspiration.“Now your knuckles are hard and your limbs are slow, in the rearview mirror the devil you know”, Picott’s lyrics are so often laced with a thin thread of melancholy along with a double shot of stoicism that both pull your heart strings and kick you in the gut all at the same time, rekindling the innocence of youth only to have it crushed beneath the weight of unfulfilled dreams, “catching fireflies with a girl so fare, in one shy kiss it just disappeared, into that long parade of years”.
The following number ‘Digging Ditches’, is as intense and powerful as anything Picott has ever recorded before and reminiscent of Tom Waits during his ‘Rain Dogs’ period with its jarred percussive accompaniment as he growls out the song’s title. In recent years Picott’s vocal range has dropped a couple of notches to a place he’s more comfortable, enabling him to generate greater power in his delivery and greater sustain both wonderfully emphasised in the chorus “we’re decorated with scars and stitches, guys like me digging ditches”. As always his role as champion for the blue-collar worker is never more than the swing of a pickaxe away. Track three ‘Television Preacher’ finds Picott taking a swipe at the televangelists, and delivers another classic line in “Money is tighter than a poor boy’s shoes” displaying his innate ability to deliver a lyrical narrative with such visual impact out of the something so obvious and mundane.
‘A Puncher’s Chance’ is the first of two cowrites with Hollywood screenwriter and director Brian Koppelman and is a beautiful number full of hidden metaphors of love, hope and resilience wrapped around the image of a prize fighter, while the second ‘Combine’ sees Picott take on the role of a mid-west farmer risking everything on the uncertainty of the coming harvest praying the combine will deliver one more time as he admits “I can’t afford to lose these crops, and I can’t afford the parts”. Once again his writing displays an intimacy and understanding of the struggles of his protagonists, here as often, sung in the first person narrative, never daring to over romanticise his subject matter, though in all honesty Picott doesn’t even romanticise romance. ‘Homecoming Queen’ is another co-write, this time with one of Nashville’s finest, Amy Speace, and again focuses on the passing of time and how the dreams of youth dissolve to nothing more than the gathering dust of middle age. Here the optimism suggested in the chorus “Everybody wants to dance with the queen, everybody wants to be seen”, is snuffed out with the final line “But nobody ever tells you it’s time to put away your rock and roll clothes”, the unsentimental directness of the narrative exposing the underbelly of Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’.
The title track of the album is the final co-write, here with Nick Nace, and its theme is as stark and unvarnished as anything on the album rubber-stamping the message that in this life there’s no such thing as a free ride. The uplifting ‘Wasteland’ offers some respite as it joyously sings of the Georgia hills, with Hubbard’s percussion acting as a conduit that drives this song all the way through those southern pines. And yet, even here there’s an unsettling and unwelcoming threat waiting at the end of every line, a warning to never let your guard down. ‘Pelican Bay’ sees Picott inhabit the role of an ageing Vietnam veteran who’s lost all he ever loved, the loneliness and solitude palpable, the lyrical narrative and delivery so compassionate and affecting that it reverberates to your very core. And so it is that the final track gently whispers its title, ‘Time To Let Go Of Your Dreams’ as if offering us sleeps dark and silent gate. “It’s snake oil there in the bottle, and you try to smile as you swallow”, Picott sings with just a hint of Leonard Cohen in his delivery, while Solorzanos solo trumpet refrain floats across the stark musical landscape like some ghostly pied pipers clarion call before the final act tells us “it’s time to find a new dream”. The ambiguity of whether it be in this world or the next a fitting climax to an album that throughout has the feel of ‘noir cinema’.
Here on ‘Starlight Tour’, Picott has delivered an album that displays all his trademark skills, his intimate stories of life and death full of uncompromising characters, crumbling relationships, and reneged promises, all played out on the margins of life where the battlefield regularly shifts from the streets to the sheets. This album is another example of a master craftsman at the height of his powers and though one would hesitate to suggest that it is the equal to 2011’s classic album, ‘Welding Burns’, it will certainly sit comfortably alongside his best to date and is a welcome addition to his burgeoning cannon of work.