Austin, Texas’ reputation as a fertile musical ground continues with Woody Russell’s work. His new EP release This Is Son Solitaire includes three tracks that represent Russell’s finest released material. Yet I get the feeling he’s barely scraped the surface of his capabilities. Blending art-rock conceits with sturdy pop influences is one of This Is Son Solitaire’s chief calling cards and each of the EP’s three songs boasts boisterous and lively production that frames its virtues in the best possible sonic light.
“Swinging for the Fences” is a picture-perfect opener. Russell and his music come surging out of the gate with a powerful sound revolving around its rhythm section. The bass and drum tandem leave a mark. The pairing swells out of the mix, never overwhelming the surrounding instruments, but nonetheless planting a vivid auditory flag in the listener’s memory. The blistering guitar playing that Russell tacks onto the track never feels like an afterthought. It, instead, reinforces the song’s strengths and adds a bulldozer-like quality to selected passages of the track.
His ability to make creative hay from everyday speech is a hallmark of his songwriting talents. Those talents are evident throughout the EP’s second cut “Lifeboat”, as is his penchant for captivating imagery. “Lifeboat” has clear-cut instrumentation, but it’s restless, and transforms several times during the course of the track without ever risking losing listeners along the way. There’s a sharper emotive edge present in Russell’s voice for this track that helps give his fine lyrics even greater visceral life.
This is Son Solitaire’s finale “Straight Space (Unhinged)” is the EP’s peak. First off, I hear it as a showcase for Russell’s dazzling lyric talents without ever slipping into pretentious twaddle along the way. It keeps close to the same musical identity established by the EP’s two preceding tracks while expanding on its foundation with a different side of theatricality. There’s no question that Russell’s songwriting on this release owes some debts to pop song architecture, but he confounds our expectations with a free-ranging creativity that utilizes those conventions in fresh, inventive ways.
It’s often said about artistic works such as movies, books, or music that there’s something for everyone here. It’s frequently a cliché, but not in this case. Woody Russell’s This is Son Solitaire achieves a mainstream sound despite the songwriting never embracing that aesthetic; its debts to pop songcraft never restrict the material in such a way that Russell writes as if he’s beholden to its inherent facileness. This is Son Solitaire delves deep and makes every effort to not lose listeners along the way.
However, you take Woody Russell’s music on his terms, or you don’t take it at all. He doesn’t pander. The three songs written and recorded for This is Son Solitaire follow their own Muse down whatever path she chooses and make few if any, concessions to predictability. It’s a challenging work that doesn’t overwhelm you but never allows you to coast through. Pay attention to it, however, and your time is amply rewarded.
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