Barton Carroll has a gentle, scratchy voice, a fluidly pretty way with the six-string, and a bouncy sense of melody that makes most of these 12 songs slip by in an alt.country haze. And yet, at the heart of these tracks there’s a deep, frightening well of darkness. I’m hoping that Carroll’s more of a storyteller than a confessionalist, because if he is actually the “I” in these tracks, he kind of scares me. Consider “Pretty Girl’s Going to Ruin My Life (Again)”, a pretty little love song, except that the narrator is sitting out in his truck in the rain, swilling down whiskey. “What do you say to a love that’s true?” Carroll croons. Erm, how about, “911, that stalker is back in my driveway getting loaded again?”
By far the scariest, and in its way most stunning of these tracks, is “Burning Red and Blue”, built on a circling 12/8 blues riff that’ll put you in mind of “House of the Rising Sun”. There’s a menace in the verse, as the narrating character insinuates “I’ll be out back / In my blue jeans / And my gun” to a woman who is clearly not entirely free to make her own choices. It’s masterfully done, though, the whine of steel guitar, the deep baritone mutterings, the half-sketched portrait of destructive love.
There’s not much to laugh about in “Burning Red and Blue”, but elsewhere Carroll has a very fine, sly sense of humor. In “Brooklyn Girl, You’re Going to Be My Bride”, there’s a jaunty jangle to his spiel about a girl who’s “Drowning in boys / And a lot of hipster noise”. The narrator is blissfully unaware that he hasn’t got a chance in hell with this girl. It’s not just that he’s homely and none-too-smart and competing with a trust-fund-artist boyfriend, his shirt’s inside out. And yet he recognizes no obstacles. “With that menacing smile / I’m going to walk you down the aisle / Brooklyn girl, you’re going to be my bride”. Uh huh, right.
You might catch a whiff of misogyny here. Yet once, in “Small Thing”, Carroll does a fairly insightful gender switch, singing from the perspective of a woman who survived the Russian invasion of Berlin. It’s a chilling song, with lyrics like “I was broken in / By broken men / With draining eyes” and “I lay on my back with all my might”, its darkness at odds with the cascading purity of the guitar work that accompanies it.
For relief, there are relatively straightforward love songs like “Laurie, Don’t Go” and the happily rocking “Ramona”. (Though even in this, the happiest of songs on the disc, there is a knife in play and a guy who wants to “lay down and die” due to rejection.) Still, it’s the psycho songs that stay with you, their crazy intensity in conflict with Carroll’s laid back delivery. If he’s a storyteller, Carroll is astoundingly adept at taking you into twisted minds and outré scenarios. If he’s a first-person guy, though, watch out. You don’t want this songwriter setting up camp in your driveway.