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A second in the series of “albums I thought were new and turns out they’re not,” I’ve been listening to Brooks Hubbard’s American Story for days now, letting the whole album sink into me until I can really feel it, trying to get to an honest assessment. I didn’t know Brooks Hubbard going into this binge listening of this album, but I know he’s a young guy from New Hampshire, living in Nashville, who made this album with some help from long-time music professionals.
(apologies to Heff, as I am leaving behind the format again and writing this the way I want to, digging into each song I want to)
Hubbard opens with “Give Up Easy,” laying down a country mile marker, delivering an unrestrained, simple deep country sound. The guitars, voice arrangement all declare “country,” and nothing wrong with that. Throughout the album, Hubbard gets solid guitar work from whoever he’s got playing the lead and the slide (maybe himself?).
On “Break Your Heart,” Hubbard evokes the Brothers Figaro’s “Cross Your Heart” and The Silos “Take My Country Back.” If you don’t know these and you like Brooks Hubbard, goes listen to these songs…right now. Ok, welcome back. I have no idea if he ever heard them, I just know the sound/emotion/vibe he pulls through sounds like a fantastic melding of the two, plus his own voice and takes is definitely a good thing. After many, many listenings, this comes across to me as the strongest song on the album.
And I have to continue playing the “sounds like” game with the next song as “Snow and Sunshine” echoes Chris Whitley like not much else I’ve heard of late. I don’t know if Whitley ever did a duet (honestly, hard to imagine he did), but this could be what it would sound just like. Great vocals, great sound, good stuff.
Lyle Lovett’s eponymous 1986 album included “You Can’t Resist It,” a strange kind of pop song with a rock guitar that sounded completely out of place. In concert and captured on his first album, Lovett replaced the guitar with a cello and took the song from forgettable pop to something incredible, one of those songs you wait for him and the band to fire up at every concert. Thinking of that, Hubbard’s “We Won’t Tolerate It” reminds me of The Revivalists, which is a good thing, but I am not sure I like this as much as one of their songs, maybe because it feels like a certain amount of forced-ness to it, which could be the guitar, which gets close to going fully over the edge into Prince or Slash or Eddie, but never does, never commits. So I end up trying to imagine the song done straight up country with a slide guitar instead of a rock guitar sound, bringing me back to Lovett’s “You Can’t Resist It” and I want to hear Hubbard play this song live and let his own country-ness take “We Won’t Tolerate It” in a perfectly different direction.
Before I write what I think about “Heartbeat,” I have to say that when I played this album for the family, reactions included this: “his voice is versatile. He could be country, but he could be many sounds. He reminds me of James Taylor, and I love James Taylor.” Pretty high praise. For me, “Heartbeat” sounds like the Counting Crows covering a Lady Antebellum and this kind of country flat out does not appeal to me. I hear this and I want to crank Black Sabbath the same way I used to prepare for my job as a bouncer at a nightclub by listening to the Grateful Dead on my drive to work.
When I first started listening to American Story, I saw how the song “Pretty Girl” topped the “most popular” charts and on the first few half-listens, I was less than half-impressed and completely unmoved. And then I listened more, paid attention more. To follow Heff’s format for a moment, we get the vocals, the production, the musicianship, the sound, the instrumentals, the lyrics all piled together here, especially in the guitar and deep, hearty, pained vocals. And lyrics that I think reveal Hubbard’s New Hampshire roots. And the closing line reveals Hubbard’s emotional depth. Really truly good stuff.
“Who gets to be her lover now
Oh, what the hell, it doesn’t matter anyhow”
“Blood in the Cotton Fields” made me miss Tom Petty. I could imagine him enjoying playing it along with Hubbard. This song also brought a reaction from the local listening crowd (the family); “is this the same guy? I like this, too.”
On “Hurting Kind,” Hubbard creates something that sounds like Adele channeling Kenny Chesney, and while that might sound harsh, I give tremendous credit to Hubbard for straight up stretching his vocals, demanding a lot from his own voice — and delivering. Takes some courage to sing something like this and talent to pull it off. By no means my favorite song on the album, but I’m not skipping it when it comes on.
So what do we have here? Not a new country album or alt-country or singer-songwriter country – some weird blend of it all, minus a few defining elements of those, which maybe is ok. The sharp contrasts between songs and sounds sometimes seems a bit harsh – but for the same voice pulling it together, unifying it, I am not sure it would work. “Hurting Kind” and “Road at Night” do not belong back-to-back unless sung by the same singer. As an album, a defined and intentional collection of songs arranged in a specific order, Hubbard pulls it all together.
Yeah, I am not kidding. I gave Iron Maiden and Blackberry Smoke ‘8’s and this guy comes in just .75 back. Maybe that’s grading on a curve. Maybe that’s hearing too much of bands and artists that I love and feeling comfortable with Hubbard’s sound. But I’ll put a few tracks on heavy rotation playlists, especially for grilling afternoons and firepit evenings.