SPECTACULAR POETRY Wesley Allen Hartley and the Traveling Trees.
Why people didn't freak out more about Dead End Armory I'll never know, and why I'm coming to frontman Wesley Allen Hartley's new project, backed by new band the Traveling Trees, almost a month after its release I'm really not sure. But wake up, people. If you've got any inclination for old-time country revivalism and the likes of Jason Molina's Magnolia Electric Company, or Bonnie "Prince" Billy maybe, then you've got to be all over Narrow Gauge Quad Trains.
Who knows whether he's earned the world-weariness in his voice, but Hartley manages to convey a timelessness and authenticity that only a few can pull off (Brown Bird's David Lamb comes to mind). Just four songs in, by "Label Peels," where he rolls syllables around in his mouth as though to see what they taste like, you have to at least consider whether he might be legitimately spectacular. Especially when it's paired with some of the best poetry going in alt-country today: "I went and wasted another month/And held it together with scotch tape/And I have been dreaming a lot these days/Oh, about nothing you would understand."
Sort of wish he didn't do that four-note walk-up at the end, though. And "Shot n Shots" is bluesy like "Folsom Prison," but it modulates into a dissonant phrasing that just doesn't sound good, bad enough to leave it off the move over to the iPod. Which is good, though, because otherwise I might be touting this guy as the next Bob Dylan, and no one wants that.
But damn if "Acreless" isn't an inventive waltz, bass on the one-beat and plenty of emotional catharsis. There's real-deal vocal work here, backed by Leslie Deane to create swooping soundscapes: "Hey, hey, hey, you can't win them all/You win them all, you lose your mind" and "You won't ever be swift/But you'll be alright." And the bluegrassy romp of "El Guasano Rojo" is a great two-minute packet of pop rocks in the middle of an album that's heavy on the caramel.
All along, the backing band of Jon Donnell on drums, Derek Reynolds on bass, and Gregg Hoover on the lap steel are rock solid — not virtuosic, but playing exactly every note necessary and not one more or less. It's definitely true that playing great music slowly is much harder than playing great music at break-neck pace.
And it's sometimes true that people dismiss this kind of slow-burn songwriting and delivery as "simple," but there's nothing easy about writing songs like these without sounding maudlin or melodramatic. Hartley avoids both and leaves you with an album that's as real as a rose bush, with the requisite thorns.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
NARROW GAUGE QUAD TRAINS | Released by Wesley Allen Hartley and the Traveling Trees | on Burst & Bloom | at Cottage Connection, on Monhegan Island | July 29 | at Arootsakoostic, in New Sweden | Aug 7 | myspace.com/weshartley