George St. Clair 2018
Albion-based Texan expat takes a look at his native land with a prospect of righting its wrongs.
Coming out of the Great Plains with a great pain in his heart, George St. Clair must have been collecting stories for a long, long time, yet it’s the distance this singer-songwriter put between himself and America that allowed “Ballads” to present them in a way the Western tragedies deserve. Dipped in history the artist, a professional anthropologist, knows so well, and delivered in sweet voice filled with sympathy, they hit especially hard thanks to the pieces’ deceptive simplicity, while lyrics don’t let anyone walk away whistling the riveting melodies, because their silver lining can’t hide black clouds darkening the record’s brutally honest heart.
The Cajun-tinged “Tularosa” warns the listener about the lies that would follow, yet there’s no better hook to welcome the audience to heed uncomfortable truths George is going to tell, especially after he’s admitted to “know all the right ways to get it wrong” and set a certain urgency for the hour-long album’s flow. No, St. Clair doesn’t offer fake pride for his fellow countrymen whose gory glory is build on bones of native tribes, and he doesn’t refrain from calling a killer a killer even in contemplative tunes laying laments on the line in less poetic terms than expansive numbers that evoke the injustices of yore which are still felt across the nation. Sadness permeating “The Places Where They Prayed” – although the track’s travelogue angle may slightly mitigate the impact of the reverie focused on the long-lost past – is awash with pedal steel to make it light, but nothing, ivories included, can’t dissolve the gloom of epic “Autumn 1889” detailing the consequences of the last Indian Appropriations Act.
That’s why there’s the patinated “Good Times” to take foxtrot to the hoedown and define the personal-space sort of freedom which would be reflected, later on, in the singer’s jaunty self-detachment from “New Mexico”; and if “Pedro Páramo” finds George wrapping drama in Latino lace, the serrated riff of “Up To Fail” introduces electric assault to the narrative to finally reveal St. Clair’s righteous anger at the dangers of both war and peace. This is where the good-time rocking could stop were it not for the pure country duet of “Lie To Them” that eventually brings about a protest-proposing advice on survival – spliced with cosmic effects for easier consumption. A record so frank and accessible is a rarity nowadays and,for all their ache, “Ballads” should be praised and cherished.