There is a particular voice that appears with regularity on Atlanta songwriter Ben Trickey’s records. It is an elder persona, the weary voice of experience, that addresses his younger singer as “kid” and shares the kind of advice Trickey has no doubt encountered in bulk growing up in the American South. It is a voice that whispers to him on “Be a Man, Kid” from 2009’s Come On, Hold On and it’s there on 2013’s Rising Waters in the cynical if sincere album-closer “Alright”: “You’ll be alright in a while / though it may take a long, long time . . . / just have some faith that there’s some sunshine someplace / in a spot up the road just a ways”.
That voice appears throughout Trickey’s latest album Choke & Croon, but where earlier it was a perspective apart from the singer, here, it grows into a part of him as Trickey slowly embraces and takes on his own embodiment of the persona. The transition demonstrates emotional growth just as the album’s sonics reveal the artist’s compositional maturing.
Ben Trickey’s previous release found him working in a professional studio for the first time as well as experimenting with full band arrangements, getting downright loud at times, not that his folk songwriting has ever lacked for intensity or emphasis. It was a heartbreak record from start to finish, a building up of angst that eventually broke free of its banks, and it made for one of the noteworthy independent releases of 2013.
Choke & Croon is for the most part a quieter album, and one that finds the songwriter in a happier personal space. Contentment, to a creative mind that has known heartbreak, is hardly restful, because trouble can lurk around any corner. “The only thing less secure than wallowing in the blues is worrying about what comes after the blues”, as Jason Molina once so poignantly expressed. Trickey’s wounded, vibrato voice occasionally evokes Molina, as does his songwriting. Trickey is an artist whose work often addresses the vagueries of Southern masculinity, often questioning both how to live up to that model and at what price.
“Chin Up, Kid” opens the record from the sage voice’s perspective, splitting time between reassurances (“Yeah one day, I promise, love will be fun”) and country wisdom (“Some folks will just waste your time spittin’ poison . . . / keep that light in your eyes and your chin up, kid”). “Toenail Moon” offers similar advice and phrasings that, as they build, serve more as commentary on the various poses of masculinity. There is an ominous undercurrent of violence in lines like, “You gotta chop out what don’t work / and cauterize the wound” and “an easy education comes one hard hit at a time”. This is the kind of education under duress that turns an impressionable boy into a suspicious man, one for whom close relationships can be challenging.
The cracks in that façade show in “Roll, Roll” where that sage, grandfatherly voice reveals signs of diminishing confidence. At one moment the speaker is pushing his young listener to stand up and fight: “I know that kid acts tough / but trust me he’s got nothing in his head / so go ahead and throw that punch / some people are begging to be bled”. In the next moment, though, that same voice gives way to powerless suspicions that the neighborhood kids are stealing his mail. The underlying commentary is that the narrative of strength through violence eventually turns to weakness and fear.
Trickey takes control of the narrative and its dominant voice in several of the album’s best cuts. In “Alabama”, the album’s wordiest track, he negates the sage voice of the elders, declaring “We’re kids playin’ hooky / adults are just fakin’”. He then unleashes a litany of hopes for an indistinct future, content in the knowledge that though “the breath that we’re breathing is haunted by life and when we’ll be leaving” we can nonetheless surround ourselves with those that we love: “We’re in this together / together we’re dreaming”. “Monster” and “Bombs”, meanwhile, offer two of the album’s hardest rocking songs, each a full-band sonic assault with a message of self-awareness and responsibility for our actions. “Take a good long look at that look on your face”, Trickey spits out in the latter. In “Monster” his offers a simple warning that leads into an explosion of discordant sound, “We could walk up to the danger / stare straight into the monster / take my hand but understand / that it won’t mince words or barter”.
By the album’s end, Trickey has warmed into and fully inhabits the voice that once led him. Singing on “New Kids” he nods to the next generation down the line, “I hear all the new kids sing / they holler out ‘Woe is me!’ / I know you got problems, son / I know that we all got some”. One can sense, though, that if he is now inhabiting the sage voice of the elder, Trickey’s advice will be more nuanced than that which he has catalogued as having received. The exclusionary, suspicious voice of the old South gives way to a more inclusive, enlightened perspective, the hint of violence replaced by trust in our better natures. The beautiful album-closer “No Marquee” finds Trickey promising that, whatever may come, he’s still standing, still reaching. “The crowds get loud and they don’t spend much / but honey that’s all okay”, he sings, promising, by the song’s close, to continue stubbornly on (“I get work when I can”) and leading the album’s players in a chorus of “we all sing along”.
On Choke & Croon, Trickey proves himself a capable and creative bandleader, able to share the stage without losing himself in the mix. His vision, rather, is amplified by the collaboration. Of particular note, longtime accompanist Jonathan Griffin provides emotive violin throughout the record’s nine tracks, his keening notes often serving as an emphatic echo of Trickey’s pained or anxious mood. Eric Young’s drumming on “Monster” brings the necessary volume to that song’s explosive second half, and Tiffany Leigh Blalock’s clear voice counterpoints Trickey’s, adding a layer of sweetness below the doubt.
The title Choke & Croon is a bit of a self-deprecating joke. This record could as easily be called “Leaps & Bounds” because that describes the strides Trickey continues to make as a songwriter.
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