Country artists generally fall into two easily distinguished categories: the dominant is radio-fried country which is potentially more derivative than Top 40 pop in its most egregious recycling of predictable elements into formula. Then you have the others, who remember that at one point in its history, country derived from true rural traditions of folk and Old Time music. Generally speaking, it’s clear from the first note whether you are dealing with mere contrivance or something natural and organic.
With Caleb Stine, you never question his sincerity. Every word and note feels like a naked, soul-bared moment. Caleb’s music is something like an oasis here in Baltimore, intensely warm and personal moments amidst the stark cold and disaffection of fast-paced urban life. Instead of focusing outward on bewildering experimentalism, he focuses inward on stellar, precise and intimate songwriting. From the piercing gaze Caleb shoots from the cover down to his steady cadence and tempo, his unfaltering vocals, everything about Eyes So Strong And Clean (his first solo outing, though many Brakemen make appearances) compels you to take pause, to contemplate and reflect. And this time, packing a bit more punch thanks to a brand-new electric Epiphone.
The titular track opens sparse, with crisp driving guitar and vocals, before soaring on the big open sounds of Dave Hadley’s pedal steel chronicling the narrator’s wanderlust and travails. A swift change in gears drops you into the uptempo “Rome,” a song packed with big guitars and bigger themes that bring out the contrast between large-scale societal struggles and small-scale personal ones. ”Home from Work” throws a bit of a curve with vocal harmonies that recall syrupy 60s pop. The honky-tonk swagger of “Sweetheart” is positively addictive as the near-perfect country rock crossover tune.
“Welcome to Rock and Roll” might be considered the album’s centerpiece. Epicly spacious as the Wild West (the only track clocking in over 5 minutes), it is probably the best manifestation of Caleb’s muse for this solo album. It also serves as a great ode to the lives of touring musicians everywhere, and a starry-eyed lovesong to the power of music.
“If This Must Be Goodbye” hits the perfect tone of wistfulness, a classic piece of Americana as a fiddle stretches its notes wide, filled with the same yearning and regret that we hear in Caleb’s voice. ”Combustion Engine” swells, at times radiantly bursting with understated power, and is one of my personal favorites as well as a great album closer.
There are a few pitfalls to the album that may be deal-breakers for some. There is little in the way of thematic variation amongst these songs and the shifts in musical style are not overly dramatic. With this solo release, Caleb hasn’t strayed too far from his familiar ground. But that’s fine because he definitively demonstrates versatility beyond his tried-and-true, working class country and blues. Eyes So Strong and Clean manages to augment his sound with fresh rock elements while also digging his heels even deeper into American roots music. Because of this accomplishment, and it’s innate accessibility, I can’t over-recommend this to folks who are pained by the commericialism of modern country and its clumsy amalgams with rock and pop. Those who yearn for a true artist who looks for inspiration backwards as much as he does forwards. Caleb Stine may have just the thing for you.
You can purchase this CD at Atomic Books.
Release Date: Jun 29 2009
1. Eyes So Strong And Clean
3. Comes From The West
4. Home From Work
5. How Long Can I Wonder?
7. Right Were It Is
8. Welcome To Rock And Roll
9. If This Must Be Goodbye
10. Combustion Engine
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