There’s a strange but fitting twang to Black Label Summer frontman Josh Hall, known mostly for his Thunderhawk records and PBR loyalty. Maybe it’s the Fu Manchu stash he sometimes wears or the whiskey and heartache he so often sings about. Mostly, he’s an indie rock dude from Philly who has been trapped in the Midwest for 12 years – and now it’s showing. When Hall released Black Label Summer’s debut album, Dirty All-Star Band, last year Thunderhawk fans were surprised by how convincingly he shifted styles. Not only did most ears seem to love Dirty, but many quickly considered it to be his best work yet. Once Hall himself caught wind of such reaction he joked, “That’s so lame. Well, I guess I’ll do another one of those albums then.” And so now, only months after the release of Hall’s Simple Twist of Hate (credited to Stun Guzzler) and Vodka Hysteria (credited to Thunderhawk) albums (plus the national release of Thunderhawk VI), Hall is releasing The Rise and Fall of Josh Hall, his second twangy studio effort. Described by Hall himself as “a drunker, mouthier Old 97’s,” Black Label Summer play … well … drunk and mouthy alt-country. The songs talk about guns and girls and drink and drugs. While Dirty did sound quite a bit like the 97’s classic Too Far to Care, Rise doesn’t. It’s twangy and mouthy and drunk but also quietly sweet and personal, at least when compared to Hall’s non-BLS work. For example, Hall sings about a tender moment he shared with “Jay, who’s my best friend,” when he told said friend about a girl who tried to get him in bed. Seconds later, when Hall sings “Tell me that you love me / Why the hell did you go” about another girl, you can almost smell the whiskey and pain through your speakers. He may curse this Black Label stuff, but it all seems strangely therapeutic.
Instant standout “The Fifth of July” is the new Hall classic, full of all the BLS trademarks – swear words, agony, twang, dreaming, etc. A dash of Hall’s trademark humor even shows up as he sings “I could text you goodbye” without a wink or nudge.
On “Backwards Smile” Hall is suddenly transformed into a pretty convincing drug dealer who is broke and longing. In the song (like any good country singer) Hall washes the sheets and throws the bottles away before he begs the night’s lady to come over. He smiles backwards because he “can’t grow up / can’t act my age.” Is Hall serious when he twangs on about being a hard-living manchild? Who knows? Who cares? He’s certainly convincing in the role.
Another standout, titled “Elouise (Funeral Procession),” shows Hall spreading his wings, trying something new. Damn. It works. Hall croons over an arrangement that sounds, yep, like a country-time funeral procession. While most of the album chugs along, “Elouise” slows things down, displaying the songwriter’s diversity and range as a musician and arranger. If you don’t already know this, he plays, records, pens and sings all this stuff himself. In an apartment. Probably late at night and certainly buzzed. Maybe a little mad too. He makes a few records a year, and none of them sound too much like the last.
“Army Ghost” sounds like a cousin to Stephen Malkmus’ “Mama,” and “The Rise” sounds – more than anything else on Rise – like it could be right off of the Dirty album, opening almost exactly like “I’d Still Burn.” Every song here works very well (even if some take a few listens to reveal themselves), save for closer “33:00,” which works as something of an homage to Paul Westerberg’s great 49:00 album. For “33:00” Hall presents a handful of songs sliced up into pieces and mixed together into one long track with moments of static between cuts. Hall’s 10-minute effort to emulate the flipping through radio station channels is impressive but doesn’t offer the magic of the Westerberg release, which worked as an over-stuffed collage from a man with a couple hundred unreleased gems he was dying to share. Hall’s track is a disappointment, but only because I believe most would rather just hear the songs he teases us with.
Is The Rise and Fall of Josh Hall as good as Dirty All-Star Band? Hmm. I don’t know that its high points quite reach the levels of “Teenage Riot FanClub,” “Liver Let Die,” “I’d Still Burn” and “Spark,” but many songs come very close.
Maybe more importantly, Rise is more consistent than Dirty – a near perfect front-to-back listen, save for the tease-filled “33:00.” This second twangy offering from Indiana’s most prolific songwriter is another big winner, made perfect for the upcoming fall season.