Old Man Luedecke is the alter ego of Canadian singer, songwriter, and banjoist Chris Luedecke, “a young man with an old soul”, according to his website. My Hands Are on Fire and Other Love Songs is his third full-length album and follows fairly closely in the style — if not the instrumental mix — of its predecessors, 2006’s Hinterland and 2008’s Juno-award-winning Proof of Love (an earlier mini-album, Mole in the Ground, is currently unavailable). Luedecke is known for his ability to put on compelling solo performances, but here opts for a full group line-up featuring Tim O’Brien (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Steve Dawson (electric, acoustic, and slide guitars, pump organ), Keith Lowe (bass), and John Raham (drums).
At times Luedecke’s songs sound like those of Tombstone Trailerpark, the sadly defunct Americana band built around Tim Buchanan’s songs of back-porch folk philosophy. Like Buchanan, Luedecke is a masterful songwriter with an ability to convey experience way beyond his years. At times, he really does sound old, as on his version of Willie P. Bennett’s “Caney Fork River”, where he attains a suitable late voice. What is magical about these eleven songs is the way that voice combines beautifully with the acoustic instruments and O’Brien’s occasional harmony vocals.
The combination of lyrics and melodies provides an additional layer of originality and marks Luedecke out as a talent to watch. The way the various elements of voice, lyric, and instrumentation are combined is consistently thrilling, but highlights include “The Rear Guard”, “Foreign Tongue”, “The Palace Is Golden”, and “Down the Road”. In each case, an unexpected lyrical insight, vocal twist, and/or instrumental texture adds an extra layer of meaning. “Machu Picchu”, meanwhile, manages to escape a clever but silly opening lyric — “I was climbing the stairs at Machu Picchu / Found my cell phone and tried to reach you” — by turning the song into itself to reflect on the labyrinthine nature of songwriting and performance: “There was never a song that I couldn’t sing my way out of.” In the case of the Wall Street morality tale “Woe Betide the Doer of the Deed”, a topical but potentially dull narrative is taken to another level by the hook of the song’s refrain. It all adds up to an excellent album that calls out for repeated plays. “I weep to see the wonder of it all,” sings Luedecke in the yearning album closer “Inchworm”. Long may he weep.