Jonah Tolchin drives the Americana genre forward with a reverent eye in the rear view mirror and a right foot heavy on the gas.
The cover of Jonah Tolchin's new record, Thousand Mile Night bears some resemblance to the kind of cartoon illustrations that were a regular feature of Michael Hurley's releases in the 1970s as well as illustrations found on later-era Holy Modal Rounders (who joined Hurley on a number of recordings). This may or may not be coincidental, but I'll vote for the latter, because Tolchin's reverence for this material is, like those artists, sincere, yet that doesn't stop him from displaying a sense of playfulness and out and out joy throughout the record. If there is such a thing as reverent irreverence (and there is because of Hurley and the Rounders) then Tolchin has tapped into it here.
There is a grotesque, otherworldliness to this odd and lovely album. Tolchin's sonic road trip barrels through a recognizable America, but challenges anyone to locate any of its points on an actual map. This is a meta-America, a symbol of itself still trying on signifiers to see what fits best. And that's cool. Tolchin is weaving new from old, showing us familiar pictures that overfill their frames and spill out into strange new visions of promise and dread. And, most importantly, the music, from start to finish, is both surprising and inviting.
The album opens with a song that could have been written for the violent and troubling summer just passing. "So I call you my friend", he sings, "in these tattered clothes / with this troubled mind / to see the beauty in the ugliest of days". Written before the horrible events in Orlando, Florida, Nice, France, and elsewhere, Tolchin's sincere plea in "Beauty in the Ugliest of Days" is a necessary panacea to the weight of so many media reports that erode our trust in each other and the greater good. I've found much solace in this powerful song.
Similary, "Unless You got Faith" calls to mind Lou Reed's "Busload of Faith" from his successful New York album, but Tolchin's take on this gospel-inflected expression is infectiously upbeat and optimistic, a counterpoint to Reed's dour, defeatist perspective. Where Reed's song serves to condemn the world he describes, Tolchin's point, with his chorus of "you can't love in this world / unless you got faith", is to give listeners the strength of will to carry on.
Moving to the darker side, "Thousand Mile Night" should earn a place among the great honky tonk road songs. Tolchin spins an all-night road trip into a Whitmanesque catalog of gothic Americana, his poetic vision taking in such poetic images as "fingers on the wheel like birds on the grapevine", a "Mississippi preacher smoking in the backseat", a "taillight missing like a gold-tooth bar fight", that collectively elicit the feeling of being "drunk on miles spun on black rain". Jamie McFarlane's bass and Michael Joel Bosco's drums chug along in accompaniment like wheels over road-seams while Tolchin's lap steel and Lucas Hamren's electric guitar accentuate the journey with squeals and rattling whirls.
The expressive guitar and effervescent bongo backbeat of "Song About Home" belie the lyrical portrayal of isolation and displacement. While that song ends with Tolchin temporarily secure in the arms of a lover, "Where the Hell are All of My Friends?" finds him again adrift, this time in a nightmare journey that evokes Dylan's "Jokerman" and similar apocalyptic visions. "Make some noise," Tolchin cries out, "It's the silence that hurts."
Marvin Etzioni, who produced Tolchin's previous record Clover Lane, returns to coproduce with Tolchin. The album was recorded and mixed in the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in a marathon four-day session. Tolchin arrived with the songs complete and the basic arrangements in his head, but left ample room for session players Hamren, MacFarlane, and Bosco to improvise their parts. The resulting album feels loose and organic, the songs vibrant and alive, free from any over-fussing at the control booth.
On Thousand Mile Night Tolchin builds on the great promise of his critically acclaimed debut Clover Lane. Tolchin is a restless composer and musician who kicks against the limitations of musical labels. File him under Americana, but the moniker is all the more nuanced for the breadth and variety he brings to it. Like Hurley and the Rounders before him, he's driving the genre forward with a respectful eye on the rear view mirror but a right foot heavy on the gas.