One the front cover of Donal Hinely’s latest album there’s a picture featuring half to about one-third of Hinely himself but with a toque-wearing concrete yard or lawn gnome behind him. The gnome has a big smile on his face, so maybe it’s a good omen of what’s to come on this album. Perhaps the gnome is a huge fan of Texas troubadours like Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, two people Hinely has often been linked to in various interviews and reviews. And while he is also sporting Coke bottle bottom-like glasses, it’s easily understandable for such comparisons. With a timbre that would fit perfectly here in Canada with roots rocker Mike Plume, Hinely gives the leadoff title track a gentle sway with his voice and the great melody. The song is one the listener should expect to slowly build with each verse, and that is exactly what happens as Hinely recalls the death of John F. Kennedy and the various upheaval that was the late ‘60s in the United States. It’s not exactly the cheeriest of ditties, but Hinely recalls the killing of John Lennon as a pedal steel guitar subtly adds color as does the distant mandolin.
You can tell exactly where Hinely is coming from on the punchy and roots rock sounding “Before Music Was a Product”, which pulls no punches on music’s current commercial-oriented state. “Take me home said the pilgrim with a six-string / I’m gonna run while I still gotta chance,” Hinely sings with some help from David Henry. This tune brings Earle circa Exit O to mind immediately, a simple but infectious sound that Hinely carries off with sickeningly ease. The album opens with a to-and-fro style as Hinely offers up a slow tune then an upbeat one before retracing his steps with the tender singer-songwriter “Road to Ruin” that could have been recorded around a campfire or, better yet, around one microphone. “Shock and Awe”, which is perhaps not that much of a stretch to bring President Bush’s war strategy to mind, is your typical rambling Dylan-ish number with voice, guitar, and a keen turn of phrases. While politically oriented, Hinely doesn’t allow the song to get bogged down politics, instead enabling you to think a bit.
After a quirky-meets-string-laced pop attempt during “The Shakes”, which might have been better placed on XTC’s Apple Venus Volume 1, Hinely gets back to basics with the pleasing “You and Me”, a picture-perfect roots rock tune with a touch of polish production-wise to boot that talks of adding a little bundle of joy into the equation. “Bubble” is the shortest song of the dozen offered here, but it’s perhaps also one of the sweetest although the strings in the homestretch are a bit too much to stomach at best.
“Louisville”, on the other hand, is the first of five final songs which are fully fleshed out, the majority clocking in at over four minutes apiece. “Louisville” is a slow, ambling Americana-flavored song that has some horns also, giving it that laidback, relaxing tone throughout. The highlight has to be “Talkin’ Cheap Trick Blues” that seems to mix the best of Hinely’s vocals with a groove that he rides from start to finish, even if it recalls pop songs from the titular band like “Dream Police” and “I Want You to Want Me” from At Budokan. Meanwhile, “Adelaide” tends to take a little while to gather steam but once it does ‘tis well worth it. Another gem is the softer, sparser, Nebraska-like “Blue Ink” that is almost haunting with its touch of strings added for tension and effect.