Stuart Pearson – Mojave – Album Review
by Jer at Sleeping Bag Studios
It’s as if Stuart’s a human chameleon, with the uncanny ability to morph his style & sound to that of his influences, without managing to do that in such a way that would like…you know…annoy you, or simply send you screaming back to search through your CDs for the originals that he’s based his vibes around. You’re gonna want a whole lot more of Mojave if you’re a fan of remarkable songwriting & tunes that show a mastery of performance…Stuart clearly made this record with full confidence in the material. Rightly so…he’s a poet, a man of music, and a true artist by the measure of every conceivable definition.
Lemme tell ya…I was INTERESTED right from the moment I pushed play – it was very easy to hear the true artistry in the way that Stuart crafts his music right from the get-go on “Like A House With Broken Windows,” and he had my full attention from that same moment forward, all the way through to the end. In the aftermath of having listened to this record several times, I’d probably tell ya that “Like A House With Broken Windows” would be my tenth favorite tune in this particular set-list in retrospect, but to be completely fair to Pearson and to the song, you instantly notice the quality songwriting, and on that very first spin, you’d be convinced it’d go on to remain one of your favorites. That being said, and to be brashly impolite, buckle the fuck up partners, because this album is SO MUCH MORE than what this first song would clue you into. I listened to “Like A House With Broken Windows,” admired the insightful poetry of Stuart’s words, loved the quality in the production, thought the performance was entirely compelling…and probably still felt like it was close enough to something I’d experienced somewhere in the Alt-Country realm somewhere along the way too. So don’t get it twisted…”Like A House With Broken Windows” would readily be an A-side on just about every album you can think of – but in the context of what you’ll go on to discover on Mojave, Pearson breaks us in slowly with an intro track that is less representative of what this experience will become, as it morphs right around the corner on song number two, and starts a chain-reaction of straight-up brilliance and artistic creativity.
If you can’t recognize the influence of Tom Waits on a track like “Down The Ravine” then y’ain’t worth your salt as a music reviewer and should probably just hang up the spurs there partner. The majority of this lineup should probably have ya thinking about the weight of the Waits influence on Pearson’s music for sure, but it’s “Down The Ravine” where you’d have to have no ears at all to miss it. Even then, if you’re still good with determining things through vibrations and such, you might still pick up on it. Anyhow. Do I dig it, despite the obvious comparisons and similarities? Hellz YES! Ultimately I wish everyone out there sounded a whole lot more like Tom Waits than they probably do. To Stuart’s credit, it’s not just the extra gravel he’s got stuck in his craw while he’s singing this – he got everything right – it’s about as close to the whole Waits vibe that you’re ever gonna hear this side of being a dedicated tribute act. So…yeah…I mean…some folks wanna be known for doin’ their own thing how they do it, and I suspect Stuart is still the same in that regard too when it comes to his music overall – but when it comes to the case of “Down The Ravine” being so fully intentional with its sound, movements, music, and lyricism, I feel like this is one of those moments where he’d clearly be proud of being a carbon copy. It’s a different animal when you’re deliberate, you know what I mean? He’s not hiding the influence even remotely on “Down The Ravine” – he’s waving it around like a flag & the badge of honor it really is.
Much like Waits, Pearson clearly digs finding that strange spot in between the light of love & the despair of the dark, climbing right into the grey area to keep your ears intent on listening and your mind amused with the words he pens to his tunes. “Dragging The Lake (On The Day Of The Dead)” is an exquisite gem when it comes to that murky style of music…it’s an authentic achievement in songwriting, cleverness in accessibility, and of course, within the lyricism of Stuart Pearson too. It’s got a jazzy thread to it…or like, the same kind of smoky lounge music you’d find on an album like Waits’ Alice…and yet it’s still got this innate pull to it too, that comes along from the smart hooks Stuart has threaded into this tune, and the overall enticing nature of the story he’s woven into this as well. “Dragging The Lake (On The Day Of The Dead)” is as awesome to listen to as it is curiosity-inducing, know what I mean? The second line of this song is “pulled out the body but they can’t find the head” – and so like…you know…we wanna know where the heck it got to, and we keep on a-listenin’ – it’s a very effective method of keeping our interest, having such a descriptive/shocking line that close to the beginning of a song. It’s kind of like, if they were to remake the Sopranos now, they’d probably take a good look at this cut as its theme song.
There are a couple of times on this record where Stuart reminds me a whole lot of Mark Lanegan more-so than anyone else, and “Are They Digging Your Grave (Or Are They Digging Mine?)” would be the first of the two. I suppose it’s fair to say that this could also be another wise choice of a new Sopranos theme too if we’re stickin’ with that comparison…but yeah…that’s just an indication of the controlled-level of cool you’ll find in this tune and the last. When it comes to the sound & structure of this tune, I feel like “Are They Digging Your Grave (Or Are They Digging Mine?)” probably seems more familiar to us as we listen…it’s got more noticeable similarities to some stuff you’ve likely heard throughout the music scene, but the execution (pardon the pun)…is killer (Oh! See what I did there?). Dude’s so intensely descriptive with his verbal imagery, his sound is powerfully sensory, and all-in-all, his songs are coming out completely flawless…it’s hard to argue with perfection when ya hear it. Stellar low-end drawl to his vocals on this tune, and it’s clearly within Stuart’s wheelhouse…he’s gettin’ the maximum out of this dark melody at all times. Fantastic use of percussion to go with the stomp of the beat in this tune too. Overall, he’s asking a very important question with “Are They Digging Your Grave (Or Are They Digging Mine?)” – I can only hope that if I’m ever in a similar situation that I’ll know the answer for a certainty.
So look…I’d readily admit that the previous three cuts are probably right up there with some of the very best that I’ve heard this year…and I’m not here to tell you that the hot streak doesn’t continue with “You Don’t See Me (Jimmy Crack Corn)” – I think a lot of people that have been digging what they hear already will feel like I do…this track is extremely close to the caliber of what we just experienced, but maybe just a degree less. Hard to say…I know that main hook is extremely memorable and gets stuck in your head, because that’s happened to me plenty over the course of this past week. All that good stuff being said…and being the true fan of texture in sound as I generally am…good gravyboat lighthouse, he has found a sound that has got me feelin’ like there’s a nails on a chalkboard aspect to this tune too. He knows what it is…I don’t need to tell Stuart where to find it, but I’ll tell you all the same – whatever it is that he’s done with dirtyin’ up them vocals he’s got is like a vicious attack on my senses y’all. Do I expect everyone out there to feel the same? Heck no. We all have different reactions to the things we listen to in regards to texture being added in. What I personally love about “You Don’t See Me (Jimmy Crack Corn)” is certainly on display in the vibe, the songwriting, and the willingness of Stuart to do things differently. I’m all about experimentation when it comes right down to it, don’t get it twisted. I even dig the way that he sings this track too…it’s just the chosen effect that’s got me feelin’ a certain type of way.
If you wanna hear a really well-written song about being an outlaw y’all…strap on in and take a tour through “The Interstate.” Perhaps the raddest thing about this track, beyond the wild genetic makeup that forms the DNA of the music in this tune, is the fact that most people out there listening might not even pick up the fact that this cut is basically the very definition of Outlaw Country to the nth degree. And this is why I’m tellin’ ya the writing is exceptional…it’s highly interpretive…it’s ambiguous…it’s basically all right there in front of us in the details of Stuart’s words, but it’s still basically all implied! I mean…it’s either that, or I’m reading entirely too much into this scenario that’s keeping Pearson off “The Interstate” – but from what it seems like to me, he’s stayin’ off the main roads for a reason, you dig? He’s headin’ on an alternate route, doin’ his level best to keep outta site and roll on to freedom, wherever that might be. I love the uniqueness in the music here, I love the storytellin’ style of how this track winds around its details, and I love how Stuart shifts gears around the 2:30 mark to get even more intense with his vocals as this song speeds onwards. He delves into the past as he’s driving along, recalling a few memories here & there as he confronts the predicaments of the present – “The Interstate” is a cleverly written tune that ultimately has a lot of room for our own interpretation as to what the heck is really goin’ on here. Personally, I love that. The best songs, in my opinion, are always about something…as to what that something is, sometimes we get to know, sometimes we don’t – I’m personally okay with both of those scenarios…I dig things floating in the ether of grey & not so black and white that we know exactly what that something is really all about. “The Interstate” is seriously badass.
“One Cut” is freakishly exceptional. Which way people will hear it, remains a mystery to this point – some out there will certainly recognize it for being the love song that it genuinely IS…but with that being said, the flipside of the coin would make the other likely interpretation for “One Cut” to be about suicide. So that sounds interesting, am I right? Lemme tell ya folks…as a person that used to seriously contemplate leavin’ this planet on the regular…the best way I can put it to you is that the thoughts and feelings expressed in this song are SCARILY accurate. Back in the day when I was doing my dances with pills, or jumping out of a second story window with no regard for whatever was below…that shit was different, you know? It was…hmm…let’s say more of an automated response…thoughtless really. It wouldn’t be until nearly a full decade from those days had passed before I married my wife, and calmed down enough to the point where I could think things out more clearly – and decided I wanted to be here after all. Now I’m on the side of stubbornness…this world couldn’t get rid of me if it tried, and I’m every bit determined to see this thing through to the finish line even if I’m eating bugs and sleeping outside by the time I’m ninety-nine and staring down the barrel of the end. Anyhow. The point is that, even though I feel that way, when you’re a suicidal or depressive type of person, those awful thoughts will still plague your mind no matter what you do, even if your perspective has done a full 180-degree turn and you know you’re past all that, you’ll still think about it. I know I do. The reality is that the thoughts simply get updated…they change…they become…thoughtful? And that’s why I’m saying “One Cut” is overwhelmingly accurate…because it’s like describing the desire to die, while acknowledging how much worse it would be for the person you love that you’d be leaving behind. “I can’t leave you my angel my sweetheart – I live only to save you from pain” is one of the most thought-provoking lines I’ve heard in any song, ever, full-stop. Because that’s the straight-up truth when you’re the suicidal type, yet you’ve been lucky enough to find an ounce of true love in your lifetime that you could never bear to ever leave. The songwriting of Hunter Lowry on “One Cut” is award-worthy stuff without a doubt, her performance as a singer on this tune is nothing short of a revelation as well. Word on the street is that this is the first song she’s written, and if I was Hunter, I’d certainly be encouraged to write more after the profound results of this one. I could quote just about every line from this song and keep us all here to next week writing about it – suffice it to say, this is one of the album’s very best. Pay close attention to the noir twist at the end that’ll take this track from a very dark place, to an even darker-er place.
Creepin’ his way closer to a Cohen or Cave-like performance…maybe even a Robbie Robertson to an extent when you consider the sound too…”You Never Really Know” reminds us of the fragility that exists between our comforts and pure chaos. You gotta hand it to Stuart and the way he writes his material – everything you’ll hear is so vivid and laced with imagery that you can practically see his words in scenes in your mind as you listen, or reach right out and grab them as they come on outta your speakers. It’s funny in the sense that, artists like Waits, Cohen, and Cave tend to get lumped into the same sentences all the time…I think there are a lot of assumptions that if you like one, you’ll like’em all – and to me, they do extremely different things. Like, I absolutely LOVE Tom Waits & everything about his music…and I have…hmm…appreciation for the performance-minded approach Nick Cave takes to his music and the poetic nature of Leonard’s lyricism, but hardly listen to either of’em by comparison. So…for me…I think with “You Never Really Know” being a lot less like a Waits tune and more like the others, it’s probably not my favorite of the set by a fair margin, but I’ve got a whole lot of respect for Stuart’s relentless attention to detail and the effort he’s put into it. Quality-wise, this man hasn’t let anyone down one iota throughout the course of this entire record, and if you were to tell me that “You Never Really Know” was your favorite track, I’d completely stand behind your choice and salute ya. Because that’s just the thing y’all…if you put everything into everything you do, you give every track a genuine shot at being someone’s favorite tune. “You Never Really Know” might not be my own favorite, but it could be yours.
“Tomorrow’s Gonna Hunt You Down,” he says. Fair enough – I’ve got TODAY then Pearson, so I consider us square…that’s ALL I NEED; and I’ll continue to cling to my belief that tomorrow never comes. I have looked and searched for it endlessly over the course of my forty-three years so far, and every time I wake up, it’s always today and tomorrow is remains as elusive as ever. Okay…all kidding aside…the violin solo on this tune! I don’t wanna just talk about this NOW, I’m gonna want to talk about that solo for the next DECADE to follow…that’s how incredible it is. Considering how much I was already digging on this tune and its Dark Americana/Alt-Country style vibe beating the odds of what’s regularly on my playlists over here…I ain’t gonna say that this solo saved the song, but it undoubtedly the real highlight. Honestly, I love the title of this track, and I dig that it’s the final line of the main hook in this tune. This is one dank-ass cut when it comes right down to it, and the melody-line seems a bit more familiar to stuff we’ve heard out there in a way I guess…but musically, there are some seriously outstanding moments to be found in “Tomorrow’s Gonna Hunt You Down.” Instrumentation-wise, this has gotta be one of the best tracks on the album, if not arguably THE best of the bunch altogether. I might argue there are better and more complete songs by other measures, but in terms of a singular highlight for the stunning musicianship you’ll find on Mojave, man…”Tomorrow’s Gonna Hunt You Down” should have you in awe.
What a fantastic finale track! “Dance Skeletons Dance” was the perfect way to finish this whole thing off I tell ya…you get a bit more energy, a little more intensity…this is where I’d put Stuart Pearson very close to the sound & style of another one of what I’m sure is our shared heroes – this is very much akin to something that you’d hear from the legendary Mark Lanegan. Essentially, without even having to compromise his vision, approach, style, or sound, he’s contorted his vibes one last time, twisting this last track into what’s quite likely to be considered to be the most accessible song on the album as far as the masses are concerned, while still keeping his street-cred intact in a way that’ll appeal to us artistic folks. “Dance Skeletons Dance” is that halfway-point between something Lanegan and something by Queens Of The Stone Age…hence why those two names worked so damn well together whenever they joined forces. I’d be taking a real good look at this last track as the main single to support this record though, “Dance Skeletons Dance” is hauntingly addictive and a riotously good listen. Above all things, that extra degree of accessibility really counts for a ton here. Records as on the fringe as Mojave are, tend to need to find a potential gateway in for the people out there…and it’s tracks like this one that might just have them happily entering the rabbit-hole to see what else they’ll find. It’s a great ending to what’s been an album I know I’ll never forget…Pearson’s scored a huge win for creativity, songwriting, passion, and art with Mojave – I’d definitely put this album in the must-listen-to section of 2023 so far, it’s 100% wild man…there ain’t a whole lot out there like it right now aside from the few comparisons I’ve cited along the way, and even with having mentioned those, the uniqueness you’ll find on this record is astounding.
P.S. – it’s being released on March 24th, worldwide, by MAY I Records – that’s only a week away! Circle the date!
read at Sleeping Bag Studios