George Washington once said, "It's better to offer no excuse than a bad one." Here are three artists that pass Honest George's criterion: they admit it's hard to grow up decent and good—confessionals in the truest sense of owning one's personal sins. Four stars for each of these superb musicians….
The toughest release comes from Matt Butler, whose Reckless Son (NoiseTrade) is the title track and the album's theme. An unabashed post-addiction album, Reckless Sons testifies to the old idea that some people need to scrap bottom before they come up for air. Butler, New York-bred and based, once fronted a post-punk band and engaged in much of the despair associated with punk's hardest edges: drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, vagrancy…. Butler is clean these days and has left punk for that folk/country/rock hybrid called "Americana," but he's not ashamed to sing about his substance abuse , lost faith, disappointment, regret, and hurt.
In one of the album's most gut-wrenching songs, "Good Friday," Butler sings of drifting to the street beneath his mother's apartment, longing to enter, but leaving because he knew he wasn't going to get sober. Butler's voice—which is often a sweet high tenor–contains just the right touch of pained punk strain. It makes a fine companion song to the album's opening track, the ironically titled "Home For Good," a song in which Butler uses "my mother's St. Christopher medal hanging 'round my neck" as the elusive dream of an easily derailed homeward redemption: "I meant it every time I said I was coming home for good." Numerous songs speak to the crooked path search for manhood. The central character in "Young Man's Prison" finds himself behind bars at age 17–a bad boy out of control who confuses heedlessness with cries for help. The title track imagines "what it's like to be the father of a reckless son." One of the most admirable traits of Butler's album is a lack of self-pity. The characters in the songs–and Butler admits most are based on him–can't really explain their actions hence (to invoke George Washington), they offer no excuses. This is a very powerful album; don't be scared off by its brutal honesty. The studio band is tight, the melodies are memorable, and Butler's range is impressive. He can be smooth and tender, but he can also bust it in the high and strong range to soar above the mix. He's sometimes compared to Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers)—apt, but toss in a little of the kicked-in-the-teeth resiliency of Slaid Cleaves.
Here's a Millennial story for you: A young man from Georgia does everything he's supposed to do: straight A's, law school, a practice with lots of toys and dough, followed by an equally successful corporate career. But he's neither happy nor fulfilled, so he decides to stop acting to a script written by others, walks away, and goes out on the road as a rock musician. That young man is Marshall Seese, Jr. who calls himself The Tin Man because of a line in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: "Once I had brains, and heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart." His EP, Too Many Lines is good stuff—really good stuff. Seese knows how to build a good rock song: start small, let it percolate, rise to a big bridge, go bigger, and then back off. His delightfully ambiguous lead song, "Already Gone" deserves lots of airplay. Is it the ultimate break up song, or one that accepts that loving is hard? Could go either way! "I want to love you like I'm already gone—sweet memory/I want to love you like it's already over/Nothing to lose—but you." I admired how Seese adjusts his voice to the moods demanded by each song. If he is stepping out in "Already Gone," he's also the guy with a fragile catch in his voice pleading "Please Don't Let Me Go," and the one who gets grungy and refuses to take his walking papers in "Don't Want to Be Free." His EP is just seven songs, two of which are alternate versions of the same song, but it has lots of moods. He's a rocker at heart, but check out the Appalachian gospel opening to the title track. He's also the guy who goes folky and tender on "I Know I." Hey Tin Man—keep following your heart.
Tossing Copper is the stage name of singer/songwriter Jake Scott. His Silhouettes and Sand LP is an extension of an earlier EP and a signal he's ready for prime time. Scott's voice has the soothing qualities of someone like Bryan Adams, but the songs are heartfelt, not processed. He sets the mood early on by opening with "The Man I Want to Be." It's a hand clapper that's bouncy and danceable, but also contains a note of fragile uncertainty: "When I write the last words of this story/Will I be the man I want to be?" This is a thoughtful album that contains tender songs such as the acoustic country "Hello Darling," but it's mainly Scott's admission that he doesn't have things figured out. He grew up in a religious family, but it didn't take and that caused him deep anguish. Check out "Edge of Eden," a deeply emotive apology letter to his mother. Relationship woes emerge on "The Mason," in which he must confront the reality that the woman of his dreams was little more than an imaginary wall that easily crumbled. The title song, an emotional folk song supplemented with strings and harmonies, is etched with longing. His is another searching for a fully realized identity album, but Scott gives us more than a sad unburdening. "Ships of Cortez" is a hopeful little song with a bluegrass vibe with a bit of full-throated joyful rave thrown in. Scott also redirects some of his darker thoughts. "American Man" is a quiet, but devastating take down of chasing material dreams: "Green ties pulled tight like nooses/Hand shakes I'm taken in/Dreams die in time I lose it/Farewell my innocence/My worth is measured in signs/Next to numbers on a line…." Scott's voice is calm, yet somehow the song is more poignant than a didactic protest song or an invective-filled punk attack on the system. Scott has learned at least one life lesson well: it pays to be honest about what you think and feel.