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Chuck Ragan has always been about honesty. Be it fronting Gainesville punk rockers Hot Water Music or penning folk-tinged acoustic numbers under his own name, the most striking quality of Ragan’s output has consistently been how raw and genuine each line comes across, particularly when belted out with such fire-bellied, raspy-throated conviction. On fourth solo album ‘Till Midnight’, Ragan returns with ten reliably heart-on-sleeve, humble yet powerfully evocative vignettes that serve as a welcome reminder of just why his name is held in such high regard in folk and rock circles alike.
Right from the first few lively, fiddle-driven moments of opener ‘Something May Catch Fire’, there’s a warmth that has rarely felt this fleshed out in Ragan’s prior solo endeavours. Assembling longtime collaborators Jon Gaunt, Joe Ginsberg, Todd Beene and David Hidalgo into a fully-fledged backing band by the name of The Camaraderie, it feels like a natural progression from the intimate balladry that marked Ragan’s first stripped-down, solo forays. While Ragan maintains a strong focal point with his visceral, impassioned performance, there’s a continual sense of forward movement thanks to a high-spirited rhythm section. Flourishes of fiddle and pedal steel guitar (courtesy of Gaunt and Beene respectively) are colourful and charismatic additions. It’s a fitting band name – Ragan and co. spent a week at his house doing pre-production in between fishing and cooking, and even squeezed a full-band European tour in before hitting the studio. It’s a lot of effort to get to know your band a little better, but it pays off in spades – the band mesh gorgeously, each track feeling like the product of organic growth together. This, along with guest vocal appearances by Jenny O., Ben Nichols, Dave Hause and more create a strong atmosphere of companionship throughout – there’s a lot of love in this one.
Of course, Ragan’s lyrics reflect this in a more literal way. “I need you like I need all my blood and my breath,” he pants on ’Non–Typical’, sounding as impassioned as ever. At times, candour almost crosses into overly sentimental territory on the likes of ‘Revved‘, only to be saved by the sheer weight that Ragan’s trademark whiskey-worn voice gives each word. It doesn’t matter if you believe what Ragan’s singing – he does, and that’s enough to provide more than adequate gravitas.
One of the most interesting things about the album is how Ragan manoeuvres between moods while maintaining aesthetic coherency. Full-bodied, boot-stomping rock outings sit comfortably by the side of fragile, crooning heartbreakers and rather than feel fragmentary, help to wholly encapsulate the scope of Ragan’s songwriting abilities.
‘Till Midnight’ is the sort of album that proudly bears the mark of the hard work and obvious passion that’s gone into it. Ragan tells stories the way all great storytellers do – never disconnected or inauthentic, and always fiercely sincere. The album’s a clear, definite step in the right direction while retaining a lot of the core elements that makes Ragan’s songwriting so great – regardless of style. With the backing of The Camaraderie, each track is a rich, textural slice of heartfelt Americana that, collectively, captures the thrill and exuberance of true, honest love and sees Ragan confidently transcend the too-familiar trope of ‘punk singer with an acoustic guitar’. They’re a dime a dozen these days, but no one does it like Chuck.
1. Something May Catch Fire
3. Non Typical
5. Bedroll Lullaby
6. Gave My Heart Out
7. Wake With You
8. You and I Alone
9. Whisteblowers Song
10. For All We Care