Topically, Nashville singer and songwriter Will Hoge is fond of looking into the rear-view mirror, even as the motion of his career hurdles ever forward. His topics cover past relationships, incidents, and impressions of life on the road, the confusion and contradiction of everyday life, and in the case of Small Town Dreams, reexaminations of the place he called home. Hoge originally hailed from Franklin, Tennessee, when it was a sleepy little burg with a gas station, a couple of bars, and a store or three; in the 21st century it has become one of the state’s fastest-growing cities. Hoge tackles notions not only of place and time, but family, friends, and lovers. “Growing Up Around Here” may have a familiar theme to contemporary country music, but it avoids clichés. Hoge‘s poetry is as affecting as Steve Earle‘s was in “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” but the former’s restlessness is marked by an acceptance and even affection that the distance of time provides. “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” is an homage to his father. It’s a midtempo country-rocker with ringing open guitars that come down hard in the bridge. “Better Than You” may be arranged with mandolins and pianos, but the chorus is rousing and anthemic, with blasting guitars and a screaming pedal steel as snares and kick drum pop and rumble. The hook is killer. “Guitar or a Gun” is as poignant as its title, walking the line between minor-key blues-rock and country. Hoge worked with producer Marshall Altman for the first time and the choice was a good one. Altman has done an admirable job in letting the songwriter be himself, creating a consistent yet dynamically rich palette for a slate of songs that are thematic in nature. A fine example is the set’s first single, “Middle of America,” which was recorded in RCA’s historic Studio A in Nashville. Chorus vocals are layered around the acoustic and electric guitars, pumping honky tonk piano, and snares, all framing a Hoge hook that’s as infectious as it is poetic and a lead vocal that’s chilling. “Just Up the Road” is a more conventional new country song, but Hoge avoids the excesses and gimmicks so often associated with the form — check the slow-burning, bluesy “The Last Thing I Needed.” His rootsy presentation harks back to sounds first showcased by Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash, and Rodney Crowell in the 1980s, poured through the roots rock filter of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. But Hoge‘s take is fresh, bracing even. Small Town Dreams is at least as strong as 2013’s fine Never Give In and more sharply focused. His gifts as a lyricist and melodist are prodigious, and his confidence and ambition find equilibrium here.
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