I've been listening to this record a while now, trying to figure out why I hate it so.
There's nothing wrong with it, per se. It's immaculate, sound-wise. Beautifully polished, smoothed to perfection. You can't fault the singer's pedigree – he’s the son of a Muscle Shoals session musician, and would hang out with legends like Spooner Oldham at the age of 11. He learnt to 'pick' a guitar a few years before that. His voice is wistful and crooning, with a slight lisp and hiccup, like a beautiful 20-year-old Louisiana version of Townes Van Zandt, or perhaps the less glamorous part of the She & Him equation, M. Ward. Nor can you fault the company that the singer keeps: Emmylou Harris adds vocals to If the Creek Don't Rise. The timing, the pace, the pedal steel a-howling in the background... faultless, as is the lyrical content (mostly “please pity me, poor drunken wretch of a country singer that I am” – with some classic Gram Parsons-esque observations on love, loss and everything in-between). If Time Was for Wasting even sounds like Neil Young roaming the hills surrounding San Francisco.
Paupers Field is all the above, and it's certainly not unpleasant to listen to, either. (You'll forgive the reviewer here if he wants to lapse into such trite clichés as “his music slips down easy like a time-mellowed malt”. Paupers Field sort of begs for such descriptive language.) And yet you still want something to jar LeBlanc out of his practised, world-weary melancholy. You want an abrasive edge to prove that his record company haven't just signed him to latch onto the current critical craze for the bland suburban folk of Fleet Foxes. Whereas Conor Oberst – another obvious reference – used to sing so crazed and histrionic you could forget his sallow youth, nothing it seems can shake Dylan LeBlanc out of his cosy country complacency.
The reliance on the morbid worked with Gram Parsons and those other doomed 70s country rock sorts because you felt they'd lived it: the love and the loss and the regret. Immaculate pedigree or not, soaked in a musical upbringing we all would like to have been soaked in or not, Dylan LeBlanc too often feels like a dilettante latching onto someone else's emotion. "Keeps the whiskey in her veins to carry," he laments on Death of Outlaw Billy John – but for what reason?
A consummate session musician, he's got the moves down pat... but where is the soul?
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