Lowlights may operate on a well-worn country road, but they cut their own route there.
Dark End Road, the title of the last Lowlights record, was a perfect name for the band's sound. Their lush country music has the deep feel of being isolated out in the vast, wide-open parts of America. And that stark, beautiful sound continues with Further/Free. Singer Dameon Waggoner and his band guide us down long stretches of forgotten road, each bittersweet melody coated with desert dust, each song echoing with the empty space around it. It sounds like a late-night ride on, say, the near-black stretch of highway between Vegas and Primm -- where the neon pomp behind you and the modest light ahead are little more than the fade-in and -out to these shadowy songs. Lowlights aren't tourists in the dark; they've made their home there.
The small touches establish this moody atmosphere. The windswept, moaning preamble of the opener, "The Lighthouse Keeper", sets this haunting world into motion. The achingly slow, barely there build at the front of "My Revolver" tosses you off into the corners of night to find your way back. All through the record, the rust and brown sugar of Waggoner's voice is coated with an echo -- something slight, nothing as heavy-handed as reverb -- so you can feel it stretching out into a wide desert sky.
These small flourishes are vital to establishing this world, because the songs themselves are so tightly contained. The band culls together pedal steel, banjo, vibraphone, guitar, percussion -- and whatever else you can think of -- into a thick country haze. But the songs living in that haze are sturdy compositions, built on tight melodies and sharp lyrical turns. The way cool organ and steady drumming give way to a sunrise of horns and guitar on "Under the Sun" sounds expansive, but it's earned on smaller moves. The terse end to each line in the verse yields to the dreamier chorus, where Waggoner pulls on phrases like "With the wind at our backs, under the sun", creates the space for those horns to come in and stretch out.
"Dirty Little Town" goes in the opposite direction, clearing out the hazy clutter to let violins and pedal steel swirl over wide-open landscape. "California Home" recalls Harvest Moon-era Neil Young with its ghostly Nashville shuffle. And the simple interplay of banjo and violin work perfectly for the elegiac "Summer's Gone".
And within all these tight songs, the band pays homage to the country music that came before them. The classic ballad feel of "Red Taillights", the boozy self-condemnation of "So Unkind", their excellent reworking of "Willow Garden" -- a traditional murder ballad that plays nicely off their own murder tune, "Down in the Mines". All of these songs sound distinctly theirs, but smartly tip their hat to the troubadours who have driven these dark roads before. Lowlights aren't afraid to work in tropes we know well -- the whiskey, the self-destruction, the heartache, the highway dreams -- because they are so sure of their own sound. They may be on a well-worn, dusty road, but they got to it from some new route, their route, one cut to get to a sound they take comfort in. And that comfort, however bittersweet, makes a hard-earned path to the listener.
Further/Free shows Lowlights still, confidently and strikingly, forging on down that dark end road. They're not to that end yet, where the darkness is complete, but they're not looking for much light in the meantime either. They don't need it. These guys are traveling by sound.