ALBUM REVIEW: Dark Americana: Stories And Songs by Stuart Pearson
Stuart Pearson is a singer and songwriter originally from Long Island, NY, who took to the craft of songwriting from a very early age. As a child his summers were spent on his grandfather’s Wisconsin farm where he was fed a diet of 60’s Midwest country music; Johnny Cash, Bobby Gentry and Charlie Rich. This earthy style of songwriting seeped into his bones, which became combined with influences such as the popular surf music of the era (The Beach Boys, etc.) owing to the influence of his older, surfer brother.
This eventually led Stuart to be involved with a number of bands, notably Through The Woods who were voted Band of the Year by the National Academy of Songwriters. A five-piece band performing with an impressive nineteen instruments on stage (including tuba, hurdy gurdy, banjo and all manner of exotic percussion), they dug deep into the past for inspiration and honed the sound that would now be referred to as “Dark Americana”.
After various other musical reincarnations, he came full circle eventually and began working with lyricist Hunter Lowry. The eleven tracks that feature on Dark Americana: Stories and Songs draw from the well of classic country songwriters like Johnny Cash, the authentic rootsy musical style of The Band (who some say invented the Americana genre) as well as the deep “sin and redemption” style of artists like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. Throw in the raw, guttural, gritty vocal style of Tom Waits (and his use of unusual percussion circa Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones) and you get a good picture of the Stuart Pearson sound.
Rise and Fall, which opens the album, is a perfect summation of his nuanced and poetic style. He has also referenced Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, artists of the 20th century realist movement. These artists depicted scenes that captured the melancholy and isolation at the heart of modern life and this song certainly captures that spirit. Set to a lilting tempo full of minor key melancholy and a haunting vocal melody performed with panache by Pearson, it depicts people’s tormented plight in starkly poetic terms: “People pray in the church of pain, they raise their hands and rebuke the sins they’ve made…”. As well as capturing Pearson’s compelling voice and vocal style, pitched halfway between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, this song also captures the essence of Dark Americana; these are tales of troubled souls struggling with the dark side of life.
On the unsettling but thrilling I Spoke To The Devil About You, Pearson gives us what seems like a Nick Cave-esque murder ballad portrayed in the first person: “I tried to protest, I tried to run, I tried to throw away the gun but he just wanted some fun....”. Delivered with solemn grandeur at the very bottom of his range, the sumptuous semitone shifts and haunting slide guitar all make for a superb song that captures a tale of someone faced with the darkest of temptations and failing.
Then She’s Gone is like a cross between a late night Tom Waits piano ballad and a Leonard Cohen “femme fatale” tale. Set to a backdrop of bluesy but deliciously dissonant piano, upright bass and hushed brushes on the snare, Pearson paints a picture of irresistible attraction that turns to obsession: “If you’re lost she’s found, she will drag you down, can’t resist her seduction, that faint whiff of sin let the darkness in, that delicious destruction...”. The brooding sax solo completes the portrait to the point where you can imagine yourself in a bar with a bourbon glass and a lit cigarette in each hand.
Fourth song Is It Still The Same combines his classic Americana sound with a poignant, sensitive portrait of an older man struggling with the onset of dementia. Featuring fiddles, glockenspiel and haunting guitar, the opening lines depict a harrowing , disoriented mindset: “Help me to my dressing gown, help me to my feet, take me to the kitchen, there may be something to eat, I haven’t been outside for nearly six or seven weeks…tell me, is it still the same?”. For anyone who felt their work turned upside down by the lockdowns, this song will resonate.
The Perfect Storm is a nice change of pace, an upbeat country track full of mandolin, fiddles and banjo. Lyrically, it depicts a dream of someone’s disappearance with a wonderfully Waits-style vocal from Pearson. It begins in suitably apocalyptic style: “I had a dream about you as the sky burst into flame, we boarded all the doors and the windows…”. The second verse gives us lines of real macabre power: “The scarecrows all bore witness to a future birthed in stone, the ground belched colder with each shovel’s bite….”.
The Last Cab Out Of Vegas is a song originally written for an improv musical Pearson wrote in the past called Life=Choices. It’s a troubled ballad in 3/4 time full of moody low-end tremolo guitar and Spector-style quarter note piano. As a soundscape, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Amy Winehouse’s Motown inspired Back To Black, another album which swam in human darkness. The song depicts a troubled, indeed frazzled state of mind: “The heat makes everything wavy that kicks up dust from the road…and as the sky turns from orange to brown to black, it feels a long way from home...”.
I Gave Her Coal is another move through the gears, this one a Johnny Cash-tinged gothic country song alternating with electrifying sections of fuzz guitar that brought to mind bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The song is sung in the first person, Pearson depicting a low-down character with entertaining relish: “She wanted rubies, it took its toll, she wanted diamonds, I gave her coal…”. The way those lines are sung brought to mind the greats blues vocals of Captain Beefheart, who was such a seminal influence on Tom Waits, and Pearson has a similar gravitas to his voice.
Demon Road comes as a slight surprise, with him singing in a higher register, but again adds to the album’s sonic variety. It’s perhaps the most traditional country folk song on the album, though not without the now customary tinges of darkness (“where the pavement ends begins that demon road…”. With its plucked mandolin and rich tremolo guitar, it’s a song that displays Pearson’s most melodic side.
Pass The Bottle is the album’s most light hearted moment delivered in a more familiar low register. It’s essentially a glorious drinking song full of banjo, dulcimer and mandolin, depicting a jailed man awaiting his fate from the judge. A hugely enjoyable song, amongst many.
Penultimate song The Rain’s Not Traveling Alone stretches back to Stuart’s time in Through The Woods and you can understand why he’s revisited it. A beautifully crafted ballad with a moving melody, it features banjo, flutes and nyckelharpa (a new instrument to me!). The result is a glorious piece of melancholy country folk with exquisite instrumentation.
Dark Americana closes out with Down In The Hole, a remarkable song featuring an infectious stomp n clap groove that conjures up the spirit of the old West. The first four lines let us know that after all the sins we are faced with justice, without which there can be no true redemption: “Enter the hangman, the law is just, my bones are gravel, my soul is dust...”. It’s a powerful and perfectly fitting ending to the album and evokes the title perhaps more than any other track.
Overall, this is a magnificent Americana album from Stuart Pearson. Fearlessly excavating the darkest recesses of the soul and exploring all the dark temptations of the human condition, Stuart Pearson combines first rate songwriting with a richly authentic, rootsy sound that takes inspiration from pure country of the past, blends it with folk, blues and rock then infuses it with the dark wit and spirit of Waits, Cohen and Cave. With Dark Americana: Stories and Songs, Stuart Pearson has made an album that can proudly stand alongside that of his musical heroes.
VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10