One of the many great things that can be said about Painterly, the debut album from Nico Hedley, is that the songs sound instantly recognizable. They have a relaxed, lived-in feeling that seems like they were emitted from a late-night radio show 40 years ago that you caught on a rainy highway drive. Or perhaps they were blasted out of a turntable at a friend’s house while everyone was sipping whiskey and talking about bad breakups and their favorite authors. The songs on this album all have that sort of feel to them. It’s part cry-in-your-beer country, part ruminative Americana – and all sound fantastic.
Officially credited to “Nico Hedley and His Family Band”, Painterly features a small treasure of musicians within Hedley’s New York circle: guitarist Ryan El-Solh, bassist Carmen Rothwell, Adam Robinson on tenor sax, clarinet, and flute, drummer Jeff Widner, and Winston Cook-Wilson on Fender Rhodes, among others. Having friends and former musical collaborators on hand gives the songs a well-worn warmth that might otherwise have not clicked. The sound is steeped in folk but with the confessional, emotional pull of country.
The opening track “Tennessee” was written spontaneously after Hedley witnessed band members hug their partners goodbye at the beginning of a tour. The lyrics describe being momentarily lost on a road trip. “Fifty miles from Tennessee,” he sings, “I hope we find somewhere to sleep tonight.” As the initially sparse accompaniment stops and starts tentatively, Hedley continues with the imagery: “Truckstop at dawn / Cornfields for days.” Eventually, the whole band crash down, with Robinson’s sax giving the song a soulful vibe, like George Jones, backed by Booker T and the MG’s.
“Waking Dreams” has that same ethereal quality, with deeply resonant electric guitar weaving around Rothwell’s nimble upright bass and El-Solh and Robinson contributing poignant solos as Hedley’s confessional, break-up inspired lyrics tell the story. “If I keep a level head / I’ll make it through, it seems / But I spent all day retracing steps / In hazy waking dreams.”
Other highlights include the brilliant “Sounds So Familiar”, a swaggering slice of mid-tempo country highlighted by Hamilton Belk’s aching pedal steel and vocals by Alena Spanger (Tiny Hazard) and Drew Citron (Beverly). Then there’s the almost impressionistic title track, where Rothwell runs a bow across her bass, and the tempo dances around loosely, placing the song somewhere between Nick Drake and Veedon Fleece. Hedley’s gentle voice is joined by Spanger’s in a brief duet before a wall of dissonant guitars provides a chaotic coda (sounding a little bit like Field Guides, another band on Spanger’s resume). Painterly has the deep, concentrated focus required for well-constructed pop songs, but Hedley gives plenty of room for loose experimentalism as he sees fit. Cook-Wilson fittingly describes the album as “a kind of cubist take” on country music in the liner notes.
“I scrape the soles of my shoes when I walk / To wear them both down / I’m trying it out,” Hedley sings in the baroque-country waltz of “Something to Make”. “If I feel the slush seeping in / There’s a reason for bowing out.” All over this album, he seems emotionally downtrodden but determined to keep moving forward. Musically, Hedley and his “family” provide instrumental support that gives the songs tremendous power. With this combination, the possibilities are endless. Painterly may be brand new, but it has the heft of a long-lost treasure in your collection that begs to be rediscovered.