November sees the next instalment in the latest series of The Magnolia Sessions from Anti-Corporate Music/Black Matter Mastering’s Dan Emery; following the first sessions from the Lost Dog Street Band and The Hill Country Devil was always going to be a tall order given the quality, but Emery is no slouch when it comes to picking his artists and the latest contribution to his labour of love is songwriter/guitarist Joe Wunderle.
The Ohio native has been described as a borderline mythical classic American character, once recognised for bringing bass rumblings to death metal artists Embalmer, he has transitioned into a dyed in the wool country act embracing the guitars, fiddle and even yodelling to bring his flavour of cajun infused bluegrass to the masses.
As with the other sessions, even the recording process that’s completely live and raw under a large magnolia tree in Nashville by the glow of an evening firepit brings its own story and flavour to the album. Wunderle found himself at the compound after a summer of travelling, sleeping rough and with a nasty case of poison ivy from painting a barn. He did, however, bring Jane Frazier, Tebb’s Karney, and Joe Macheret with him, friends and musicians he respects to flesh out the sound. This proved to be a first for Emery who hadn’t recorded a band in this format, but the professionalism and experience of all parties shone through and the twelve tracks that make up the session sound as natural, laidback and vibrant as any other.
The beauty and curse of this series is that The Magnolia Sessions showcase many different artists across the genre, and as mentioned in my previous reviews, the common thread that ties them together is the chirping of the insects in the background, and all other preconceptions need to be left at the door.
In terms of the dark, sorrowful nature of the two previous releases, Wunderle comes over comparatively gentle in terms of themes and tone. The yodelling, whilst an acquired taste, does help lift the feel of the sessions and the addition of the other instruments, slightly similar to the Lost Dog Street Band does give the impression that despite the, sometimes sad, nature of the subject matter, you’re not alone. Compare this with The Hill Country Devil’s moments of isolated soul searching, and the bluegrass ballad structure of the songs, then this session seems almost jaunty.
The music itself spans Wunderle’s career with songs ranging in age from over a decade old, to freshly birthed for his new album (which he recorded as a seven-piece band just over a month before this live set). Talkin’ To Myself starts off with soft crooning invoking the troubadour spirit, steel strings are lazily plucked, and the fiddle bring giddy bends as there is a feeling of nostalgia. There is loss in the lyrics, but it never feels like a lament.
there is an innate beauty that runs throughout, the additional instruments swell the emotions, or augment the vocals, helping you feel the lyrics…
Tell The Conductor is upbeat and irreverent in its tale of infatuation, life’s trivial and small moments that make you feel comfort is used to describe happiness and a safe feeling of contentedness with someone that you love. The male and female harmonies strengthen the chorus, and the musical interludes make the song as light as air. It’s heart-warming, wholesome and fun with the little analogies thrown out to describe what is essentially the rich food for the soul that we all too often take for granted.
Farewell Yodel No3 contrasts this with a more sombre number that has moments that tug on the heartstrings as Wunderle’s voice takes a heavier tone and there are whispers of regret that not even the seemingly jaunty music and yodelling can cover. The yodelling never threatens to overpower and detract from the song and is once against harmonised, adding to the authenticity of the track and showing that it’s, at times, a misunderstood musical tool.
Much like The Hill Country Devil session, once the band settle into their performance you can feel them grow in power and Times Are Strange is an externalised inner monologue, half-spoken, half-sung and full of wistful dreams of escaping. More so than other sessions, it feels like a real place in time and in the world as evidenced on Midnight On The Ohio.
What can’t be understated is that even though it feels like the mood between the tracks can ebb back and forth between happy and tinged with sadness, there is an innate beauty that runs throughout, the additional instruments swell the emotions, or augment the vocals, helping you feel the lyrics.
Eighteen Long Years is a particular late album highlight. After a handful of soothing tracks which feature the backing vocal talents of Jane Fraizer who provides beautiful harmonies and bolsters the choruses of songs like Farewell Yodel No1 and Walking Bell, Wunderle brings it down to the stripped-back simplicity of him and guitar. Intoning a downbeat that could be the perfect distillation of country, blues, folk, and cowboy spirit, the haunting sentiment of ‘Life’s too short and death’s too long’ is a line that is both bittersweet and songwriting gold.
As the session draws to a close on the ode to Ohio that is Heart Off It All, it’s a reminder that this series works because of the artists that Emery chooses. Their ability to work in this stripped-down, raw environment means that the relatively simple concept is elevated beyond the notion of ‘playing around a campfire’ into something personal and powerful. They don’t feel like you’re attending a concert, they feel like you’re invited in to join the artist as they bare their soul and whatever your day-to-day musical preferences, that is a gift to be treasured.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden