It’s unfair to steal the artistic merit of a musician by comparing them to another musician. You could spend months, even years working on a piece of music, and – upon releasing it to the world — only get to hear that it “sounds like [other band].” I imagine that’s degrading.
Now, that being said, it would be difficult to write this review without comparing John Calvin Abney’s newest album — “Far Cries and Close Calls” — to the works of Wilco. The first track, “Beauty Seldom Seen,” caught me me off guard with what I initially thought was Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) singing.
It’s not, though. It’s Tulsa-based singer-songwriter John Calvin Abney. Abney, while similar to Tweedy in vocal pitch, has one of those indisputable country voices. With every stressed note you hear his voice crack in that heartthrob, controlled manner. Where Tweedy keeps his tracks a bit more calm and composed, Abney isn’t afraid to strain his music to stress the emotion, with mixed results.
There’s “Goodbye Temporarily,” the deceivingly happy second track. The major key and the meandering country organ that swings in and out of focus juxtaposes harshly against the melancholic nature of Abney’s lyrics. “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” is one of Abney’s tracks that serves as a sort of throwback to honky-tonk and old country-blues. It’s hard to imagine a song like this coming out of 2016; that’s how dated the sound feels. There’s even a token violin that sweeps up and down in an attempt to really grab you by your heartstrings.
I could go on a bit more and discuss how the organ and harmonica combination in “Jailbreak” may just make you keel over with laughter, but I’ll hold back a bit to discuss the album as a whole. Abney has an untethered talent. The album is very technically impressive. The notes are all there and Abney vocalizes them quite well. That being said, “Far Cries and Close Calls” is at its undisputed strongest when its quieter, slower, and thoughtful with songs like “Beauty Seldom Seen,” “Goodbye Temporarily,” and “In Such a Strange Town.”
“Far Cries and Close Calls” is tighter in the moments it spends looking ahead, when Abney slows down a bit, loosens his voice and really lets all the instruments come together to induce a plaintive emotion. Tracks like these can feature a harmonica or a melodica and not sound too campy, because these types of borderline-ambient tracks utilize the nature of these instruments the strongest.
For every height, however, there is a depth. “Far Cries and Close Calls” does suffer from biding time in the past. “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” and “Jailbreak” both harken back to the days of the old honky-tonk where grizzled, hungover men hop on stage with a guitar and sing about how drunk they are. It’s, as I stated previously, a dated sound.
An important one in the development of music as we know it, but a sound that can’t be as widely appreciated in the modern day. All the heel-clicking and the unchanging chord progressions simply don’t carry the emotional complexity that Abney is able to hit with the other, better tracks.
Yet, even with these grievances, I found my experience with John Calvin Abney’s album to be a positive one. Where he stuck his toes into the water of the past, he also jumped into the ocean of the future, and the asymmetrical feeling the album creates when you stick these different types of songs back-to-back keeps you listening. Abney mixes the future with the past in this album, giving us a similarly mixed result and a slightly progressive record.