Review: Matt Heckler ‘The Magnolia Sessions’

As with previous reviews, I begin with a disclaimer; I listened to Old Rub Alcohol Blues from Matt Heckler’s album The Magnolia Sessions, and I knew I was going to enjoy it within the first couple of bars. But please bear in mind that I’m not familiar with traditional Appalachian music, nor for the most part with the other styles and artists that have influenced Heckler. I simply don’t know the history or the conventions the way I do for, say, punk or stoner. Regardless, the emotional rawness of this album, combined with the raw production, should appeal to many readers of this site. 

Heckler’s album is the first of a series of The Magnolia Sessions releases featuring artists of various traditional flavours. There are several completed and ready to go, all recorded live, outdoors under a Magnolia tree at Anti-Corporate Music/Black Matter Mastering headquarters in Nashville. The promo material paints a vivid picture of a muggy summer evening in Tennessee, Heckler standing in the drizzling rain with just his instruments and a couple of microphones.

In the photographs you can see an old wooden chair, plastic bags over the microphones to keep the rain out, and a mannequin loaded with a home-made binaural microphone. The night-time noises of crickets and cicadas are part of every song – you hear them at the start and end of every track, and every quieter passage. I’m not only dragged through time and space to that magnolia tree, but anchored there for the next thirty seven minutes.

The album begins in fiery form with Going Across The Sea. As always, you hear the sound of the crickets undisturbed for a few seconds, before a mournful fiddle melody begins. It soon cranks up to a rollicking pace, as befits a tale of new beginnings across the sea. Heckler’s voice rings out clear. Like many other tunes here, it’s a raucous reinterpretation of an old song. Heckler’s version becomes a very Irish tale, but told in reverse, as the protagonist vows to travel east from the New World to the Old: ‘Fare thee well, my pretty little miss – I’m bound for Erin’s shore.

the emotional rawness of this album, combined with the raw production, should appeal to many readers of this site…

The album unfolds like the landscapes and people of those ancient mountains, and I find myself longing for a place I’ve never been. Every lyric is a life and a story, tales of lost love and heartache, of harsh elements and hopelessness, but sometimes of hope too.

Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still is a slow and mournful fiddle ballad, and a story of unending heartbreak. Likewise the solemnly picked guitar of Morning Breaks, but the lyrics also show a grim determination to achieve redemption. Heckler’s scorching version of Big Scioty is stark and raw, but still uplifting. As the themes and tempos change, I can’t help but picture quiet valleys, windy mountaintops, and the countless lives lived there.

The journey reaches something of a crescendo with Old Rub Alcohol Blues. The furiously-picked banjo and howling vocals tell yet another tale of trouble and woe, but in dark melodies that belong to the Silk Road as much as the Carolinas.

The final two songs bring a gentle slope downhill and something of an epilogue. Lonesome Road is a slow, mournful fiddle ballad, and That Old Copper Ring is the most gently delivered tune on the album. The guitar is delicate and the vocals are more restrained than any of the previous songs; they’re barely louder than the crickets. It’s achingly sad and beautiful, but ultimately hopeful: ‘It may be years now till I’m back on my feet, but I’ll rise up swinging by and by.’ Sooner or later, we all need something like that to hold on to. Beautiful album.

Label: Anti-Corporate Music
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Rob Bryant