Paul Cauthen describes himself as a formerly profligate individual who has now returned to the fold on the first-person narratives from his latest album, Room 41, whose title refers to the hotel room in Dallas where he lived in during his most dissolute period. Cauthen’s reformation doesn’t mean he has forgotten the allure of his past sinful behavior. The best parts of the record are when Cauthen describes his uncontrolled actions, which leads one to love the sin and hate the sinner. He’s both the prodigal son and the faithful and jealous older brother, and who wouldn’t prefer to hear the stories of the rebel kid.
The best songs are the ones that burn with brute passions, such as “Cocaine Country Dancing”, “Can’t Be Alone”, and “Holy Ghost Fire”—that despite its name has more to do with to do with the physical love for a “sweet mama” than with spiritual desire. Cauthen has a full-sized bass voice, or as he describes it, a “Big Velvet” tone. There is something smooth in his delivery, no matter how loud he croons the lyrics. When Cauthen sings about his life being a train wreck, one truly feels the locomotive power of his voice. However, the explosive result is muted. He has arrived at the station of the cross instead of burning in a fiery hell.
Cauthen frequently invokes praying as a way to resolve one’s inner conflicts. The ten tracks here could accurately be described as ten prayers. On the explicitly titled “Prayed for Rain”, he describes himself and his friends as “born survivors”. The pain of living is a given to Cauthen, but the fact is obscure. There’s a difference between wanting a favorable future and living a happy life, and Cauthen doesn’t make the distinction on this and the other cuts. The transformational quality of the “Prayed for Rain” saves it from being maudlin. He begins the song quietly, just him and a guitar, but before he’s done, there’s a choir of voices and a large musical accompaniment including pounding drums behind him. Cauthen knows he is not alone in being alone.
He identifies with the “freaks” of the world. Cauthen begins “Freak” with a spoken word introduction about the time he spent in jail for possession of marijuana. He finds he had more in common with those in the institution than he expected. They all had some sort of “big itch” that could not be scratched by obeying society’s norms. The cultural hegemony did not satisfy instinctual needs. This is an old story, but Cauthen makes it fresh through the intensity of his deep-throated vocals. And when he finds that words alone won’t do, he calls on electric guitarist Austin Jenkins to convey the emotion with a wah-wah guitar line. Before the song is over Cauthen is joined by a gospel chorus, a jazzy saxophone solo (Jeff Dazey), a churchy B3 (Jordache Grant), and other sonic trappings. Putting his voice in this context reveals Cauthen’s awareness of his shared condition—we are all freaks.
Room 41 showcases Cauthen’s continued growth as an artist. He uses his big velvet voice to great effect in various musical contexts here. The results can be flawed—the danger of experimentation—but this is also part of the charm. The least interesting parts of the record are the more generic sections, duh! But Cauthen is not afraid to take risks. Despite his proclamations to the contrary, he hasn’t really found peace yet. Musically, this is to the listener’s advantage.