By Dustin Blumhagen
It feels like only yesterday Chuck Ragan released his watermark album, Covering Ground. The album distilled his gritty sound into its’ folkiest form, creating a compilation full of odes to wanderlust with an audible ache expressed through his lonely lyrics. It was the farthest he had strayed from the gritty punk sound of his other project, Hot Water Music and arguably eclipsed anything he had released prior.
Naturally Till Midnight was approached with a healthy load of trepidation and high expectations. After a break, Ragan is back with a full band, which includes his usual partners (guitarist/pedal steel player Todd Beene, fiddler Jon Gaunt and bassist Joe Ginsberg), but is fleshed out with a great cast of new band members and guest musicians (drummer David Hidalgo Jr., of Social Distortion, Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers/Foo Fighters, Ben Nichols of Lucero, Dave Hause, Jenny O., Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass of Drag the River). The sound on Till Midnight is noticeably more “full” than the Americana sound of Covering Ground. In addition to the bulking up of the sound, the lyrical content changed from focusing on themes of travelling and the emotions related to life on the road, to a much more positive focus. Chuck Ragan loves his wife and he wants the world to know it. However this happens to be the weakness with this album. Much like fellow songwriter Bruce Springsteen, Ragan in love isn’t quite as interesting as unhappy Chuck.
By no means does that mean that Till Midnight is a bad album. It is a great album throughout. It just doesn’t live up to the watermark created by Covering Ground. The fleshed out sound isn’t as interesting as his sparse Americana influenced music. It leans more toward a regular rock record in the vein of the aforementioned Springsteen (think his mediocre Working on a Dream release). That being said, there are still elements of the roots music that has become the trademark of his solo career. Vagabond is a rollicking tune anchored with plenty of steel guitar reverberating in the background. First single, Non Typical, is a great love song. Ragan’s gravel throated voice evokes plenty of emotion as he hollers his way through the track, with plenty of gang vocal support. The rawness of his voice helps keep the song from descending into kitsch, which is a considerable feat considering the sugar coated lyrics I need you like I need all my blood in my brain. There is a roots rock swagger that pervades Bedroll Lullaby, which brings to mind Neil Young and The Band. The catchy Gave My Heart Out rolls along at a quick pace, with plenty of room for crowd sing along moments. The pretty Wake With You is a mellow tune with a constrained Ragan on vocals, the edge of his voice smoothed to an almost whisper, reminiscent of Brett Detar. Throughout the album, the fiddle and steel guitar take center stage, reinforcing that his long time partners are where his strength lies. On paper, the pedigree of guests (Nichols, Hause, Snodgrass…) sound like a dream collaboration, but in reality their contributions are surprisingly easy to miss.
In the end, Till Midnight is a solid entry in the discography of an artist fast becoming one of the most lauded roots artists around. He has firmly separated himself from his punk roots (remember when Hot Water Music played main stage at Warped Tour?) and tweaked his sound to blend Americana, Heartland rock, classic folk, hints of country and the occasional splash of the blues. Ragan is undeniably a wonderful songwriter and this is an essential release for fans of his solo work. While it doesn’t live up to the hype that Covering Ground created, it stands alone as a great album that shows artistic growth.