It’s plenty impressive to conjure a compelling album of indie Americana from an island (metaphorically speaking; it’s Indianapolis). It’s quite another feat to plant a concept within said album and keep it alive and thriving throughout. But, that’s exactly what perennial songmeister cum provocateur Jethro Easyfields manages to pull off with his latest, The Outland. It’s an engrossing trip inside swampy rural/small-town intrigue, populated with victims, hucksters and outliers. And the banjo/acoustic guitar/brushed drum/harmonica instrumentation implies a period with sepia-toned vibe and just the right mix of propulsion and melancholy. As Jethro and company have proven before, they’re startlingly adept at blending mirth and malice; charlatans bilk with impunity, and folks often gravitate to their baser instincts. It’s just another stop on the long, long path to redemption. Ruby Roads is “ragged but right,” and stands up as a 3D character instead of a flat character study. Same with land pirate Travelin’ Sam who “boasts about his motorbike” and may or may not bring to mind Billy Gibbons. Long story short, Easyfields ain’t too shabby in the storytelling department. You won’t want to turn your back on Travelin’ Sam, but you’d probably enjoy an entertaining evening around the fire with the guy. “There’s an ugly stench of doom,” he warns on the Ninth Ward/Katrina-recalling “Shame on the Levee.” No shortage of blame to go around, to be sure, but Easyfields smartly sticks to the ground-zero, ground-level view here.
Much of The Outland’s settings and characters are unvarnished, unsentimental and, for the most part, resigned to their geography — and to their fates. “Have Mercy Ramona” recalls nothing if not Springsteen’s Nebraska, were Nebraska set further south and east. “Singing the last song with your pants down / … telling you, it’s not a good look,” sings Easyfields in a scratchy bray that’s at once matter of fact, tender, worn out and introspective. A wafting accordion adds the perfect atmospheric touch to a song that’s both lyrically brutal and wistful. In other words, typical Easyfields.
The entirety of The Outland is well produced (by Easyfields and Scott Kern), and the quality of the album never dips. You may not pull this one off the shelf when you need some aural comfort food, but if you’re after substance, The Outland makes for a fine meal.