The pandemic has a way of obscuring, sanding off the highs and lows of everyday life with constant low-grade anxiety, a good dose of grief, and a general impression that it’s absurd to be upset about anything because at least you’re not dead, or at least the people you care about are safe (or they’re not, and, well, that has a way of obscuring things, too).
We are still having joys and sorrows, though, independent of disease and societal disruption. Sports teams win and lose. High-school seniors get accepted to their hoped-for colleges. Or don’t. Couples find love. Or break up.
As vaccines enter arms and the loud background buzz of the pandemic begins to fade, it begins to seem OK again to sit with those more ordinary feelings.
And so it is almost a guilty pleasure to spin “January Heartbreak,” the new collaboration between Joel Thetford and Renee Coolbrith (Pretty Sad, Johnny Cremains, etc.). It’s an easy eight songs of classic break-up tunes and relationship woe, co-written, although Thetford gets top-billing as lead vocalist.
The melancholy is pleasurable in its low stakes, cast in familiar Americana tones and soft croons. It’s hard not to be reminded of the hopeful “January Wedding” by the Avett Brothers or Trace Adkin’s twangy “Heartbreak Song,” even Taylor Swift’s crisp and poppy “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince.”
As with previous Thetford releases – three longer works in 2015’s “Here I Go,” 2017’s “The Outer Bank,” or last year’s “Jacksboro Highway” – he has as much assembled the album as performed it. The nine musicians on this piece are some of the most recognizable in Portland: guitarist Matthew Robbins of King Memphis and Murcielago, bassist Stu Mahan of London Souls and seemingly countless projects as performer and producer, now-Nashville-based pedal steel player Adam Kurtz of Kino Proby and much more – and they all come through ably. Even Dave Gutter shows up to play some bass.
Long-time Thetford collaborator Ryan Ordway holds the whole thing together as producer and he’s done good work to make it feel cohesive, if maybe lacking in dynamics.
There are times on the likes of “Wasted Love” where it delves into the kind of easy listening you just don’t hear much of anymore, a la Pat Boone or Chris Isaak. True-sounding keyboards, a bowed bass, and long, drawn-out vowel sounds create a warm embrace, a softness. “Keep Me” is almost a lullaby, a lamentation. “1000 Setting Suns,” with a keyboard like an accordion, is dirge-like, somnambulant.
But there are enough flourishes to keep the album from devolving into melancholy white noise.
On “Suns,” Coolbrith’s verse has an icy chill, a hard tone in the upper register, to match her lyrics: “You knew you would be, more than many, it would seem/ Like a thousand setting suns for me.” With the title track, after riding the singalong chorus for all its worth, Thetford turns the intensity up a notch with a brassy harmonica and a drum-driven rock pick-me-up. And the closing “Don’t Need Your Love” is a ’70s throwback, with Mahan laying down Steely Dan bass and Coolbrith delivering a piercing falsetto.
But unlike a lot of albums that seem targeted at the “country” demographic, Thetford never goes in for faux twang or aw-shucks folksiness. Though he’s actually from Texas, there are any number of northeastern country-and-western bands that lay the twang on a lot thicker. Heck, the new album from Rhode Island’s Charlie Marie, “Ramble On,” is much more traditionally in the Nashville vein.
If anything, Thetford comes from that Texas tradition of Willie Nelsons and Guy Clarks who’ve traded as much on emotional appeal as Southern culture, perfect delivery, and big pipes. When he does put together a cover like “Wish You Well,” he even avoids the banjo the Mallett Brothers had in the original and replaces it with vibraphone-style keyboard. It’s hard not to hear Coolbrith’s more adventurous background in some of those artful choices.
It’s easy and comfortable, a late-night indulgence after a few drinks by yourself on the couch, when a January heartbreak sounds like just the right kind of sad.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
If early May is any indication, we’re about to get a flood of new releases this spring and summer.
• Dave Bullard, “Lost Horizon” — One of three full-length records Bullard has loaded onto the internet in 2021, this old-time blues piece is a throwback by an old-timer, with rockabilly licks, a simple drum kit backing, and vocals like you hear in a roadhouse bar behind some chicken wire. There’s a charm to it like Greenwich Village in the ’60s, a little big outsider.
• Batons, “Cri de Cœur” — The second, and the band says last, record from this Portland three-piece is a five-song slice of indie rock, not unlike what they were putting out in Northampton in the 1990s. The guitars are crunchy, the vocals wail, and the drums are heavy and present.
• Rebel Son Rise, “Today I Will Laugh at the World” — Among the odder releases to come across our desk, the highlight here is probably “The Lobster Dance,” a Run DMC-style piece of rock-flavored hip-hop that includes absurdities like “first you clap your hands and begin to boogie/ Raise your hands straight up to the clouds, and spin around, and scream real loud/ Woooo.” But there are 10-minute prog-rock pieces, some metal, random samples – there are no rules. Go in with an open mind and some edibles and see what happens.
• That Hideous Sound, “The Hideous Sound EP” — A three-song debut from Mason Newell Comtois’ project, it doesn’t lack for variety, while maintaining an aesthetic. The opener is a Ramonesy punk bit, the middle’s a more New Wave number like Jonathan Richman has traveled in, and the finish apes a melody line from Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.”
• Genius Black, “Utensils” — A sexy collaboration with KevCoast, there might not be a smoother voice in Portland than Jerry Edwards’, whose Genius Black persona pushes the envelope of bedroom R&B and delivers high-production bookends for KevCoast’s higher-register almost-rap.
— Sam Pfeifle