Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Wilder Woods and Brigid O’Neill

Wilder Woods – Fever/Sky

Side projects can be fun, like when Jack White formed The Raconteurs with Brendan Benson or Garth Brooks did a pop album as Chris Gaines. Bear Rinehart’s day job is fronting the Christian rock band NEEDTOBREATHE, best known for their song Brother. They also opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on their tour in 2017. (They’re also known for a physical fight Bear and his brother Bo got into, but that doesn’t seem relevant here!)

Bear named his side project after his two oldest children; his youngest is called Waters. When I heard the first single from this second solo album, called Maestro (Tears Don’t Lie), I replayed it four times. I liked absolutely everything about it: the chord progression, the double-tracked guitar solo, the grit in Bear’s vocal and the fuzz and reverb on it, the woe in his tale and, above all, the chorus which brought the backing vocalists to the forefront like the best Motown records.

How on earth could the rest of the album, which arrived two weeks before Easter, live up to its opening track? It does its best to.

The production on Patience, which begins and ends emphatically, shows what Bear has learned in two decades of trying to get music to wide audiences in big arenas. Indeed, on tracks like Criminal, the massed vocals and drum track make it sound like an LA pop album from Fitz & The Tantrums or Portugal, The Man.

Be Yourself is another one of those songs of self-improvement, underscored by a barely there arrangement. Wish It Was Mine and Go Ahead are two of the tracks where the melody and delivery remind me of Marcus Mumford, another songwriter whose Christian upbringing informs his music.

Heartland is yet another one of those songs that recasts songs by The Band, particularly the descending chord progression of The Weight, into a song about rural stuff. It doesn’t make it bad, and it’s one of the reasons I love authentic country-rock with a rootsy flavour. I replayed that one immediately too.

Get It Back is a love song that counsels that ‘when you give your heart to someone’ they might keep it, while on Death of Me Bear wishes he ‘could love you better’ over some tapped hand percussion. The album ends with Make Your Own Mistakes, another track to win over Mumford fans where Bear sings that ‘you can find your own forgiveness’ and should avoid ‘crooked roads’ and not following the mistakes he has made.

This is an album that sounds great and contains much to enjoy.

Brigid O’Neill – The Truth & Other Stories

What a great album title. This is Brigid’s third and fits snugly into any roots music playlist you may be compiling. She’s Irish and recorded this album in Nashville with Mary Gauthier’s producer Neilson Hubbard. There are sleevenotes from DJ Ralph McLean who praises the ‘empathy’ in many of these songs. Empathy Country would make a good genre or playlist title, actually.

Brigid’s voice is plain without being timid, which allows the arrangements to shine around her too. The jaunty opening track Live A Little Lie Oh creates a chirpy mood which is brought down by Easy, a meditative tune which could be an operatic aria by Puccini, and the wistful Ask Me in a Year. That song is driven by some A-major dominant-seventh chords that remind me of the work of Daniel Tashian from The Silver Seas, while the toe-tapping Prayers (‘it’s a set-up on the road to hell’) is irresistible. Ditto Amelia, to whose charm ‘everybody dances’, which Brigid sings near the top of her register.

Some of the tracks are, as per the album title, stories, which are full of mystery. Midweek Magic Club, which is in Minnesota, contains the words ‘conjuring’, ‘optical illusion’ and ‘subliminal messages’; the minor-key arrangement matches the mystery of the lyric.

There are two songs about leaving: one with that title where Brigid sings a tragic Gaultieresque folk ballad (with the mysterious line ‘to take her place by her children’s side’) in her Irish accent; the other is called You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Honey where a fiddle and a chorus of female voices join Brigid in her boast of how ‘I’ve got a hold on you’.

Messy Path (‘of other people’s hearts’) is a gentle tune where Brigid kicks herself for being so trusting in her fella. Take a Day is a song that promotes mindfulness in melody form, while closing track Pilot’s Weather sums up the album perfectly: a narrator who ignores the incoming storms, a spacious arrangement with piano, acoustic guitar and echoing trumpet; and words like ‘turbulence’ and ‘here nor there’. Give it a listen if you can.

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