In their hometown of Magnolia, Texas, Zach Chance and Jonathan Clay grew up on an expansive catalog of American music, ranging from artists like the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and the Rolling Stones. They absorbed the music of the South, playing and listening to music on their back porches. At 22, the longtime friends relocated to Austin to polish their developing musical style. Utah, their debut album, showcased excellent songwriting and revealed their diverse influences. The anthem “California (Cast Iron Soul)” gave fans a taste of Chance and Clay’s unlimited potential.
While Utah was a bold and refreshing taste of country-rock, it had its share of rough edges. Many times the duo accompanied themselves with only one guitar, singing low-fi ballads of varying quality. In their second release, Jamestown Revival all but purged the meandering ballads that populated Utah, resulting in an upbeat road album filled with rich harmonies.
Chance and Clay’s harmonies are intimate, unique, and immediately identifiable. Their tone is harsh and spare, yet beautiful. Harmony is the glue that holds The Education of a Wandering Man together. Without it, the album would crumble into a pile of seemingly unrelated influences: a pinch of country slide guitar, a side of bluegrass banjo, a dollop of soul-inflected rhythm. Knowing this, Chance and Clay seemed to have made their voices an integral part of their songwriting process. Each melody is crafted with careful attention to each voice’s role in the song and the story. Their dueling tenors spew frustration at the “Company Man”, yet gratefully remind the listener that they’re living the “American Dream”. Chance and Clay mold their voices to fit their lyrics while retaining their signature timbre.
While Jamestown Revival’s harmonies are the constant that provides cohesion, it’s their melding of influences that makes The Education of a Wandering Man stand out in a sea of post-Black Crowes country-rock outfits. Boogying stomps, such as “Company Man” and “Poor Man’s Gold”, with their bluesy and distorted guitar riffs, bear a striking resemblance to those of the Black Keys. On the other hand, “Airliner” and “Midnight Hour” could have been found on a 1960s Stax release with their Steve Cropper-esque efficient, bouncing guitar. It’s no coincidence that the chorus in “Midnight Hour” sounds like Wilson Pickett’s single of a similar name. “Airliner’s” chorus soars, boosted by horns and backing vocals. The bridge morphs into a brief Allman Brothers jam with dueling guitars before crescendoing into the final, triumphant refrain.
The fantastic penultimate track, “Done Me Wrong”, has echoes of the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia”. Chance and Clay sing, “I’ve never been the one to be mistreated / Yes, I’ve always been the lover with the upper hand / And now you’ve gone and got yourself a New York City man / I’m sure he’s got good manners / but can he please you like I can.” There is a delicious, ironic pleasure in their voices that makes you question whether losing their women upsets them at all.
The Education of a Wandering Man does suffer from occasional missteps. “Always Been Wild” is a filler song, with a grating, seemingly never-ending refrain that hogs airtime from the brief verses. “Midnight Hour” has soulful rhythm, but the band loses energy on its way from the pre-chorus to the chorus; a quickening drumbeat and intense strumming lead to a pedestrian, lazy melody. While the many ballads on Utah bogged it down, The Education of a Wandering Man suffers from a dearth of slow songs.
On “Almost All the Time”, Chance and Clay sing the majority of the song a capella, and the tenderness in their voices is tangible. The song ends abruptly at a little over two minutes, keeping listeners on edge. The song itself is impressive, but it can’t compensate for the lack of ballads on the rest of the album. Chance and Clay capable of penning excellent slower tunes. “Time Is Gone” and “Golden Age”, both off of Utah, are a testament to their skills as balladeers. The new album would have benefited from a variety of pace.
Still, the majority of the album is a delight to listen to, and a significant amount of that delight comes from the band’s ability to celebrate its country roots. Slide guitar is present on many of the tracks, and the harmonies themselves are steeped in the country tradition. Banjo is present in the chorus of “Head On”, where both men focus on laying out their future plans, crooning “I’m gonna spend my time with a woman that I’m lovin’ / I’m gonna raise a little hell / With the good ole boys / No there’s nothing here that’s ever gonna please me / So I take my things and head on down the road / head on!” Crazed, soulful whoops are tossed joyously around at the end of the chorus. Though Jamestown Revival pulls from many genres and time periods, its countrified, soulful sound successfully unifies The Education of a Wandering Man.