[14 January 2014]
If it carries the right amount of believability, a ragged and weary voice is a valuable weapon in the world of Americana. And, on Starlings, TN’s seventh full-length, All the Good Times — an adventurous, ambitious and genre-jumping ride down the dirty highway — frontman Steven Stubblefield has never sounded so gritty and worn. He’s also never sounded better.
Like Johnny Cash and Steve Earle before him, Stubblefield’s brand of gritty introspection reveals scars, but leaves space for the sort of hard-living mysteries that makes the singer every bit as important as the song.
There are only small pockets of continuity on All the Good Times. Tweaking their sound every two songs or so — allowing the album to rise and fall — keeps it engaging, bouncing from blazing bluegrass to melodic, heartfelt folk to updated takes on boozy blues. And everything is compact and to the point. As a whole, All the Good Times is extremely lean: every song except two clock in under four minutes and five tracks finish in less than three.
While the perpetual exploration throughout All the Good Times is breezy and freewheeling enough to avoid bubbles of boredom, it’s also the thorn in the record’s side. At times, the album feels like a loose compilation of solid demos instead of a cohesive product, making it fail to develop the sort of personality or defining sound that can elevate a good body of work into something special. It’s not that implementing several forks in an album’s road should count against it, but like a novel that fails to tie all its subplots together, All the Good Times bites off a little more than it can chew, struggling to present a seamless flow.
After kicking off with two feel-good, bluegrass tracks about women and whiskey (Good Time Gal, Oh! Whiskey), All the Good Times starts to shine with two melancholy, nostalgic songs that show the most depth, spirit and sheer brilliance on the entire album. On Back to Magnolia, Stubblefield’s soft, grizzled growl contrasts effortlessly with his dulcimer’s high-pitched yearnings as he vividly paints a picture of what his hometown looked like, before letting a wave of emotions drop into the song: “Now, my mind wanders off to that far off place / The dog comes and licks the tears from my face / This ain’t a movie, no this is real life / Why do my memories so often make me cry.” Appropriately following is Hey Pretty Mamma, which is similarly structured to Back to Magnolia, but lightens the mood as a loose, candid ballad that recognizes the pleasures of simplicity when you have a partner in wasting away hours together: “Hey pretty momma, won’t you come inside? / The wind and the rain, it gonna howl all night / I’ll make you a drink, to ease your mind / Oh, we’ll dance and we’ll play, stay up all night.” Then the album starts to get a little strange — it’s a mixed bag from here on out. There’s a relatively rooted Bill Monroe cover (Blue Moon of Kentucky, a super-charged raucous country rocker (All the Good Times Are Now), a bluesy, ominous outlaw revenge tune (The Thompson Boys, a silly ode to southern barbecue that you can’t help but tap your feet to (Burnt Ends), a forgettable tale of love and regret (The Other Guy), an affable cover of an old-school rhythm & blues standard (Shake, Rattle and Roll and, finally, a digital-only bonus track that’s one of the strongest on the record (“Hey Little Birdie”).
Despite constantly running amok, the thing about All the Good Times is that it does have an identity. When Stubblefield wears his heart on his sleeve and the dulcimer leads the way, Sterlings, TN sounds like nothing except Sterlings, TN. It’s completely original. It has bite. It’s modern mountain music that hasn’t been filtered by some big-shot, please-the-masses producer. The problem is that All the Good Times loses it’s way too often.