“…Tom Vandenavond is one of the most talented singer songwriters of this twenty first century and probably has a lot in common with the great John Prine at his very best…”
Tom Vandenavond is one of the most talented singer songwriters of this twenty first century and probably has a lot in common with the great John Prine at his very best (his early days?) but this is due in the main to the very strong similarities in their vocals. Tom probably has more variety in his instrumentation and the characters in his songs, which are not shamed in that esteemed company, generally inhabit a different area to Prine’s. He is a man who if there is any justice will eventually achieve the same legendary status as Prine; there is still time and he has the talent! This is his sixth album, with each subsequent release generally surpassing it’s predecessor for quality. So, does this album continue that upward trend? You bet it does! The tremendous songs are well written and all tell evocative tales, with Tom’s melodically rasping vocals being perfect for getting every little nuance out of the songs. The varied instrumentation and arrangements cannot be faulted nor can the tremendous melodies or the playing, all adding up to an album that in my house and car is never out of the stereo. This is his second consecutive album on which the backing band has been that tremendous roots outfit ‘Larry and his Flask.’ Such is the esteem in which this hugely talented musician is held that the band manage to restrain their usual ebullient selves in favour of supporting these excellent ‘story’ songs.
The songs are predominately weighted in favour of tales about ordinary unnoticed, unremarkable people that nonetheless have their own tale to tell. Their lives are, if not exactly lived on the wrong side of the tracks, certainly bordering that area and there is not much light in their lives although, as in life, there are a few little oasis of brightness to balance things out. Several of these tremendous songs relate tales of a travelling musicians life and the high price paid for the ‘freedom’ that goes with it, whilst even some of those that are not overtly about musicians could actually be related to that lifestyle. We are not talking about the cossetted life of so called ‘stars’ either, more the itinerant performer that believes in his own musings and suffers the hardships that sticking to his guns entails! There are a lot of simple if heartfelt emotions attached, as if the character has reached a crossroad in his life and wants to get some of his experiences off his chest. Thanks to the bands restrained, atmospheric playing and Vandenavond’s emotive vocals and writing, huge sympathy for the subject is achieved. I found myself at times feeling incredibly sorry for the characters who just didn’t have the wherewithal to lift themselves out of the situations in which they find themselves. Many of those situations are ones that most have been in at times but you just know that these people have given up or are close to giving up on any hopes they may have had. His writing seems able to express emotions without being over philosophical, more a simple telling rather than overcooking his experiences!
The album opens with Postmark West Baton Rouge, a beautifully atmospheric song with lovely chiming guitars and a well balanced instrumentation that blends everything beautifully on Tom’s paean to his lost ‘Creole Belle.’ This is followed by the title track “Wreck of a Fine Man,” a tremendous song about the fall from grace of a broken down singer who finds solace of sorts in the bottle. With the choral voices in the background, the banjo and remainder of the atmospheric instrumentation the song takes on an even sadder haunting feel. There are further tales of lost love, such as “Lost Claim” with chiming banjo and haunting dobro, followed by the accordion and banjo driven “Where They Say You Been Livin'”. “Pawned All My Freedom” with its gorgeous dobro sound is actually a little lightness with it’s tale of found love, then it’s back to unrequited love with “Them Travelers,” with its ‘barrelhouse piano’ and easy loping tempo. I could go on even more but ultimately there is no slacking in quality and every song is a mini adventure in the lives of the protagonists.
Whilst very few of the songs even get close to mid tempo it is a tremendously varied album with the instrumentation being well thought out and giving plenty of variety to the sound. The only slight concern is the recording quality. I noticed that someone else questioned the almost homemade feel and like them I’m pretty sure that if these tremendous songs had been recorded in a quality studio we would be listening to a five star rated album. Sometimes that homemade feel is a good thing, but with this quality of music it really deserves to have an almost pristine sound. Of course, it could be a case of Tom’s budget not stretching that far which just about sums up the modern record industry whereby ‘stars’ can be manufactured but real talent has to struggle. For all that, this is getting very close to being a great album and I’m pretty sure it will figure strongly in my 2012 album of the year list.