Europe loves Americana almost as much as Santa Fe does. Case in point: Boris McCutcheon & the Salt Licks’ new album, Wheel of Life, was, as of press time, in the top 10 on the Euro Americana Chart, which is compiled by music industry types in Europe (apparently those who aren’t too busy listening to Falco).
Wheel takes on a good chunk of country/Americana offshoots, from slick and bright country to bluesy, soulful balladry and more. The album is a mishmash of styles that manages to come together into another stellar effort from this revered local songwriter and his band.
“I have a hard time sticking to one thing,” McCutcheon says. “I don’t want to bore myself or the people playing with me, so I wind up with this whole kaleidoscope of music thing.”
For Wheel, McCutcheon enlisted a who’s-who of local talent. This includes his core band (bassist Susan Hyde-Holmes, guitarist Brett Davis, and Kevin Zoernig on keyboards and various other instruments); along with Paul Feathericci, Jason Aspeslet and James Berlin on drums; Stephanie Hatfield on backup vocals; and members of Zoernig’s family playing strings and pan flutes.
The album opens with a bang on “What Ails You,” a fast-paced, honky-tonk number that asks the age-old question, “What’s your problem?” Slide guitar swings behind the slight rasp of McCutcheon’s vocal work, while the beat drives the song along into cheerful, poppy territory. It is the perfect album opener: a semi-angry story to get the listener pumped.
Lyrically, Wheel culls from life in New Mexico and Northern California. In “California,” McCutcheon recalls living there. He wistfully thinks about his youth, despite having felt out of place. Almost regretfully he sings, “All them golden fields to me felt foreign and unreal/So I left that lovely land called California.” “Bad Roads Good People” explores the rejuvenating power of his family through heartfelt lyricism.
“I’ll call it a country album because it’s a series of stories,” McCutcheon says. “And, really, country music has always been about the art of storytelling.”
Through the sheer poetry of his words, McCutcheon captures the essence of both country and Americana: an introspective glimpse into American life.
The album also features a handful of well-chosen covers, including a beautiful rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall”; “Mark Twain,” a bitter love song by longtime McCutcheon friend Mark Ray Lewis; and a live version of “Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine,” a tale penned by Austin country-rock troubadour Homer Henderson that humanizes John F Kennedy’s assassin.
There’s a lot to like on Wheel, and there’s a whole hell of a lot going on. The intense level of instrumentation
and lyricism takes some undivided attention to pick up. From the ethereal strings on “Clan of the Sunflower” to the gripping and tragic tale behind a young man drowning in “Gila,” this set of new songs from McCutcheon and crew reverberates long after the album ends.
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