[14 July 2003]
If you believe the persona in the songs, he’s not that cool and prone to loneliness and broken hearts. But in truth, once you hear that voice you’ll know otherwise. This is the kind of strong roots rocker you’ve been hoping was still out there somewhere. Will Hoge is the real deal—a talent that delivers even more live than in the studio—and one that should have a long flourishing career if there’s any sort of cosmic justice.
While 2001’s Carousel was a fun and rowdy musical romp that impressed many (particularly with the hot guitar playing of then lead man Dan Baird), this sophomore effort is a major-label deal. Hoge continues to surrounds himself with fine musicians in Brian Layson (lead guitar, background vox), John Lancester (keyboards, background vocals), Tres Sasser (bass, background vox) and Kirk Yoquelet (drums), then leaves it to guitarist/producer John Shanks (BBMak, the Corrs, Chris Isaak, Sheryl Crow, Joe Cocker) to put that production right up front and in your face (as it should be). Having Chris Lord-Alge mix five of the tracks is another plus.
Blackbird on a Lonely Wire is good old-fashioned rock with a soulful, bluesy edge. Hoge’s voice commands attention, and as such draws you in to his songs, stories largely about love and loss. Hoge knows you can sing about love without being wimpy. Modeling himself after singer/songwriters like Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen, he aims to tell great stories through having a phenomenal band.
After dropping out of Western Kentucky University, Hoge returned home to Nashville committed to playing music. He and the band play some 250 live shows annually, and the groundswell of fans that have connected with the music is impressive. Listening to the music, two things become apparent: 1) the band seems to be having a great time playing and 2) Hoge puts honesty behind the songs, making you believe every moment along the way.
“Not That Cool” is about a lonely guy in a bar who wishes he were as suave as James Dean, looking for the courage to deliver the right lines, and determined not to be alone for the night. “Be the One”, the first single, tells a cautious tale of a misguided young woman eager to do just about anything to become something to someone else. Hoge delivers the bad news against an infectious riff and melody: “Everybody wants to be a star in somebody’s dream / But you can’t get there darling down upon your knees”.
“King of Grey” is a piano-based ballad of loneliness that stretches across all seasons, a melancholy yet soulful tune of hoping for eventual release from this pain of heartache. “Secondhand Heart” is about the lack of sympathy and inequity of loving more than you get in return. Hoge’s lyrics capture the pain of that void: “Filling pages with the same old secrets I still want just you / Blackbird on a lonely wire do you ever think about me too / I want something that I can hold onto I don’t care if it’s wrong or right / Sex and God and lust and I just hope that maybe I can get this right”.
In “Hey Tonight” we get a guy who has yet to accept the end of a relationship, and who comes close to stalking his ex- in hopes that she will say she still loves him the way she always did before. You really feel the pain in Hoge’s delivery—you buy it completely: “Hey tonight say the fire is still burning / And in the morning pretend we don’t see the ashes on the floor”. “It’s A Shame” covers similar territory, but this guy has somewhat accepted his relationship’s end. Still, he considers it a shame and spends a lot of time thinking about her and how she’s faring now. Further along is the realistic narrator of “Someone Else’s Baby”, a guy coming to grips with the fact that his old love is now someone else’s, wondering if she still leaves her clothes piled on the floor, etc. . . . in short, torturing himself.
Classic soul-searching vocals (say Tom Petty meets Bruce Springsteen meets Lowell George) are the underpinning beneath “Doesn’t Have to be That Way”. This is the kind of song that would have been a radio single a few decades back—nice guitar, and a most emotive vocal delivery, declaring against the fates as they are, bemoaning the troubles.
“TV Set” kicks up the guitars a notch, a fun if lightweight rocker exploring the role-play guise of TV repairman. Those who have any doubt that Hoge and his band can rock out should give a listen to “All Night Long”. This throwaway rocker is about Katie, a rebel-rocking girl eager to defy parents and teachers and stay out till morning.
Perhaps the quintessential Hoge song is “Better off Now (That You’re Gone)”, featuring wonderfully tight musical execution of a nice melody, and coming in just under three minutes. This is rationalization of the highest order, a guy convincing himself he’s moved beyond a failed relationship, all the while deploring the type of treatment he had put up with previously. The prettiest song here is the closer, the soft “Baby Girl”. Michelle Branch lends some harmonies to this sweet bunch of wishes and advice from father to baby daughter (“Be strong in this great big world”).
There’s no filler on Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, just lots of big musical heartache presented in a most convincing manner. There’s joy in this earnest misery—and when you hear it, you’ll smile. Hoge and his band seem to have found the right combination of muscular soul and roots rock that gives them a somewhat harder edge than say, Counting Crows . . . now if only they can find the wide-scale audience that used to be there for this kind of true American rock and roll. The talent is there, but that’s never a guarantee. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hogewill-blackbird/