Six years in the making, the second solo offering from the My Morning Jacket guitarist is tender, nostalgic, and often sweet. Neko Case, Laura Veirs, and MMJ buddies are on hand to help.
Carl Broemel’s solo debut, All Birds Say (2010) was not the collection of freewheeling anthems one might expect of the guitarist from My Morning Jacket. Rather, it was a surprisingly thoughtful, well-crafted collection of singer-songwriter material that featured acoustic guitars as much as electrics. Amid My Morning Jacket’s full schedule and other commitments such as touring with Ray LaMontagne, it’s taken Broemel six years to eke out a follow-up. And, no, title notwithstanding, 4th of July is not an explosion of anthemic guitars, either. It does, however, find Broemel venturing out in some broader musical directions.
4th of July includes only eight songs. Two of those, though, cross the seven-minute mark. The title track starts out brooding and minor key before heading into a rousing, Neko Case-assisted chorus that is about as rocking as the album gets. From there it serves as something of a showcase for Broemel’s varied and considerable guitar skills. There’s some almost classical filigree; flinty, Neil Young-type atmospherics; and, finally, full-on fireworks before it all fades into the ether. It is certainly the most My Morning Jacket-esque moment of Broemel’s solo work do date, and it is bold of him to showcase it at the front of the album.
At the other end is “Best Of”, a gently swaying, country-swing track that's much more contented if not upbeat. The timeless tone and Broemel’s observation that “maybe we remember things as better than they were” are typical of 4th of July’s bittersweet, nostalgic tone and focus on the passing of time. “Rockiningchair Dancer”, a standout, is a tender waltz that follows its protagonist from childhood rocking horses and carousels to old age in the titular rocker. The song, again like the album as a whole, radiates contentedness rather than anger and struggle.
Broemel, who is 42, seems to be at peace with the wisdom and perspective that come with age, as well as the cost at which they are attained. On “In the Dark”, another standout, Broemel looks at sleeplessness as something of an equalizer or, better, unifier. “I don’t care who you are / You’re gonna end every day of your life lying there in the dark,” he sings. The words may seem downcast, even grim, but the bucolic, vaguely tropical accompaniment gives off warmth and reassurance, like a grown-up lullaby.
When 4th of July is at its best, it's gentle and unassuming but not dull, languid but not lifeless. Aside from the sweet AM pop/rock of the sashaying opener “Sleepy Lagoon”, there’s not much here as immediately appealing as “Carried Away”, the standout from All Birds Say. The backing, which features My Morning Jacket cohorts Bo Koster and Tom Blankenship, is suitably rustic and nuanced, lending to the atmosphere but never getting in the way of Broemel’s songs. And it’s the mixed quality of those songs that prevents 4th of July from being an absolute triumph. On several tracks, the languid arrangements win out over the atmosphere, lyrics, and Broemel’s agreeable if occasionally warbly delivery, and the music simply drifts by without leaving an impression.
Still, 4th of July reveals itself as much more than a mere curio or solo indulgence. Its best songs confirm that Broemel is a talent who deserves to be reckoned with in his own right.