Character is defined by how one deals with the Big Stuff: life-altering tragedies, joys and tribulations. Fort Wayne musical spigot and erstwhile Orange Opera head dude Kevin Hambrick has dealt with all three in the time since the Opera’s Year of the Beard release. Let’s just cut to the chase: he’s put out a solo disc in the new Turtle Wagon that proves Hambrick has weathered both family loss and new fatherhood with his musical gifts fully intact. In fact, this album brims with energy, inventiveness and fearlessness. From the lo-fi feedback squall that kicks off the opening track to the spare, bittersweet final notes of the closing number, Hambrick takes us on a fun, ecstatic, scary, sad and ultimately satisfying ride. Will you turn the volume up as soon as “A Lot Like U” begins to hit its “Instant Karma”-like stride? You bet you will. Hambrick’s prolific output has never suffered from lack of originality or quality, but his not so secret weapon is his ability to point to classic musical touchstones — without simply aping them. This opening track is proof positive that the man is a musical encyclopedia, and he’s not afraid to drop a wink here and there. The song is cocksure, buoyant and carried along by its wordless refrain. It’s followed by the tight, new wave-flavored “Blanket of Assassins,” with lyrics that seem to have been inspired (at least in part) by instructions on a medical prescription: “You may apply ice to the injection site for 10-minute intervals, if you so desire,” sings Hambrick, sunnily. It’s funny, confusing, a bit disturbing, certainly surreal.
Turtle Wagon is packed with other highlights that range from the simmering “When I Die” (a gospel/blues that’s also somehow pure Hambrick — it sounds simultaneously contemporary and like a lost early 70s nugget) to the driving “New Year’s Eve” which includes guest drumming duties from Orange Opera’s Kevin Hockaday. Then there’s the majestic “Aaron’s Song” which in another era would have gotten the full orchestra backing treatment. “Don’t Say You’re Happy” ships you straight back to mid-60s Britpop, while the relatively spare “Ocean” is perfectly content in its calm mid-tempo (and accordion-bolstered) shuffle. “You could hear a song / and you could sing along / if you want to,” Hambrick croons.
The more stentorian “The Best That U Have” pumps along on fuzz guitar and a tough, minimal rhythm section. Like most of Turtle Wagon, this tune ropes you in immediately, while not exactly sounding quite like anything you’ve heard from Hambrick before. Its unceremonious ending is followed by the sublime, spare closer, “True.” As Hambrick intones, “Too many years of second guessing what I had to say,” you feel that he’s talking not only to another, or to himself, but you directly. It’s a haunting tune based mostly around Hambrick’s unaffected vocal, a lone electric guitar and a ghostly e-bow. “This song depends on you / depends on me,” he sings, and you feel every bit of the emotion he’s investing in the song as it hits your eardrums. That’s one quiet victory among several on this collection of diverse pop tunes, delivered by an artist who deserves the opportunity to relish the good things in life — and deserves to capture a larger audience.
Catch the official release show on September 15 at the Brass Rail.
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