Artist: Chuck Ragan
Album: Covering Ground
Label: Side One Dummy Records
Hot Water Music alumni Chuck Ragan numbers The Gaslight Anthem and Frank Turner among his past tourmates; the latter fittingly thus as Ragan plays a similar brand of warm, old-school folk. His music has a simplistic but heartfelt vibe to it, showcased by the minimal approach to this album, most of which is made up of a strong vocal line and sparse backing guitars.
In an era when so many bands attempt to dress up lacklustre efforts in layers of decoration, there’s something instantly loveable about the bare, yet profound sound of “Nothing Left to Prove.” Ragan’s years of experience in the industry are clearly evident as he constructs the first of numerous undemanding, capable, and enjoyable songs. This one has a bit of a country twang to it, with a fiddle just audible in the background, though the primary focus is the vocals. Ragan sings with a commanding resonance, the timbre rasping but authoritative, almost single-handedly lending the music its charm. “Nomad By Fate” is also quite basic in structure, with just a guitar, fiddle, and vocals comprising it. There is a slightly stronger feel to this one than the opener, with a dashing sense of adventure to the opening notes and a touch of the bittersweet in the vocal interplay.
While the album doesn’t break many barriers in terms of instrumentation or sound (many of the songs are fundamentally the same), Ragan’s vocal presence is more than enough to infuse each one with a distinctive appeal. His voice is rough but warm, with a kind of lived-in age and wisdom to it that gives the music conviction and sincerity. There is a candid beauty to the simplicity of the set up in this sense, particularly in tracks such as “You Get What You Give,” “Meet You in the Middle,” and album denouement “Lost and Found” – it lets the words lure you in and maintain your attention, as opposed to the music.
“Wish on the Moon” affords its backing strings a more active role, while the guitar becomes a bit more raucous. The sound is pervasive and keen and, despite the absence of much percussion, it’s catchy and exciting. “Come Around” brings in some female vocals for a touch of lightness, their presence also adding (perhaps inevitably) a touch of something sadder. A bold bass bolsters the sound from the off, and further along the vocals are neatly layered as the song fades out. “Valentine” also uses some female vocals but it’s a more jubilant number. The spirits are a bit cheerier, as the glimmer in the harmonica and strings amply demonstrate.
“Seems We’re OK” has a prolonged intro call that sets a wistful tone, with a harmonica lingering despairingly in the background as he sings. This one is a bit more like a conventional ballad, with a very caustic sadness evident in the music and the backing chorus. Both this and “Right As Rain” are probably a bit too emphatic as to the wealth of feeling they’re evoking, with the strings and searing notes in the latter particularly shrill, but they’re endearing nonetheless. The sound is delicate and tender, with the vocals carrying it ably.
The final track on the album, “Lost and Found,” is the only potential dud note. It’s fine in and of itself, but there’s a bit of a bizarre five minute gap in the middle before a hidden track puts in an appearance to some very random and slightly pointless background distortion. The hidden track is good, suitably bluesy, and acts as a rather emboldening call to society but it would have served better as an actual 11th track on the album as opposed to being buried at the end credits.
This one minor gripe aside, Covering Ground is a tremendous album. It’s genial, soothing, and evokes a superbly familial, absorbing sound. The basic instrumentation may not vary throughout but it does give it an authentic character, and with Ragan’s vocals anchoring each song it can barely put a foot wrong. A comforting and engaging listen.
Review written by Grace Duffy