John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat

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The lane is wide open for the would-be country revivalist. As the mainstream product increasingly incorporates new sounds and attitudes,
there will always be audiences yearning for the sparer, “rootsier”
sounds transporting them back to the days of the Highwaymen. It’s an
evergreen niche, and it is forever welcoming to new entrants.
Enter Oklahoman songwriter John Moreland. Though Moreland
has been making this sort of music since 2008—his last release was
2013’s In the Throes, a sorrowful and spare collection of heavy-hearted country rockers—his background playing in local punk and hardcore groups gives him a good feel for forcefulness. Many of the songs on Moreland’s new album High on Tulsa Heat,
arguably Moreland’s prettiest if not his most most musically vivid
release, capture this feeling—”Cherokee”, in particular, weaves a solemn
guitar line with Moreland’s weathered vocal to devastating effect.
(“I’ve got a taste for poison/ I’m giving up on ever being well/ I keep
mining the horizon/ Digging for lies I’ve yet to tell.”)
High on Tulsa Heat is filled with simple
delights like “Cherokee”. Songs like opener “Hang Me in the Tulsa County
Stars” and the title track push Moreland’s voice forward while
accenting its weary wisdom with simple accompaniments—sliding guitar,
pedal steel, economically applied—and harmonies (“Heart’s Too Heavy”).
High on Tulsa Heat finds
a nice balance between the spare and sad (“Cleveland County Blues”) and
warm moods, and on balance, it’s strangely uplifting.
Moreland lacks the cynical sharpness and humor of fellow travelers like Sturgill Simpson—whose Metamodern Sounds of Country Music stands
as a high watermark for this generation’s wave of “alt country”.
Moreland’s songs are simpler and open up in more conventional ways. On High on Tulsa Heat,
small details feel like major victories—for instance, the soft
tambourine and shaker flourishes on album highlight “White Flag”.
Moreland’s music is sad, to be sure—but even as he’s singing about being
useless and an addict (“You need something stronger/ A drug to kill the
hunger/ And ease the awful pain of living here” from “You Don’t Care
for Me Enough to Cry”), you can hear a palpable hope for redemption
coursing through. There is plenty of well-worn sentiment and saltiness
in his music, but there is also a relatable humanity that makes High on Tulsa Heat
worth going back to. Though many of the songs convey images of
earthiness and of dirt, there’s a beauty that helps the collection soar
above the ground. 

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