Artist: Ruston Kelly
Release date: 7th September, 2018
Genre: Americana, Folk, Singer-Songwriter
Record Label: Concord Records
Review By: Gary Smith (LCM)
When your wife has released one of the Grammy nominated albums of the year, it quite easy for you own debut release to be slightly overshadowed. But Ruston’s 'Dying Star’ is well worth exploring further. What really stands out for me is the cinematic storytelling and songwriting plus some great pedal steel arrangements
‘Dying Star’ is a very impressive debut from Ruston, a little-known Nashville singer-songwriter with a fine voice and a gift for pairing heavy lyrics with remarkably graceful melodies. The album is full of impressive high crafted songs. It is a lovely blend of Americana, Country and Folk.
The album has the recurring themes of love, loss, pain, substances, desperation, self-discovery and the hope for salvation. As Kacey Musgraves’ marriage to Ruston inspired the blissful cosmic country sound on ‘Golden Hour’, perhaps Ruston’s next album might explore more positive themes.
The album was co-produced by Kelly and Jarrad K (Kate Nash, Weezer) and recorded at Sonic Ranch in El Paso, TX. It includes 14 songs written/co-written by Ruston and features Ruston (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, xylophone, harmonica), Jarrad K (12-string guitar, background vocals, electric guitar, Rhodes), Tim Kelly (pedal steel), Ian Fitchuk (piano, organ, drums, percussion), Eli Beaird (bass) and Kyle Ryan (banjo) as well as background vocals from Jon Green, Natalie Hemby, Kacey Musgraves, Kate York, Abby Sevigny and Joy Williams. Of the album, Rushton comments, “A lot of my music is focused on suffering, or trying to understand the human condition through the lens of suffering…which probably sounds totally depressing, but it’s actually the flipside of that. Sometimes you’ve gotta go into that darkness—you need to get lost and then figure out for yourself how to find your way back. That’s the only way we can find pure joy, and really be thankful for the life we’ve been given.”
The album opens with the acoustic pop ‘Cover My Tracks’ followed by the lovely ‘Mockingbird’. I really like the acoustic guitar, pedal steel and harmonica interplay on this one. Classic Laurel Canyon fused with mid-tempo Country Rock, almost Neil Young meets Ryan Adams. Ruston shares, “I wrote ‘Mockingbird’ in a Dominican hotel, on the edge of a bed, at like six in the morning. I needed a release from a cyclical pattern of a doomed relationship. The kind that leaves you with less than what you went in with. It’s a story for everyone, the human condition, our connected plight in a mad world. Regardless of how it’s expressed, we all struggle through something with hope on the other side.”
The vocoder infused ‘Son of a Highway Daughter’ has echoes of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” updated for the young Nashville generation. Rushton is a great storyteller and a perfect example is the reflective and sad ‘Paratrooper’s Battlecry’
The bluesy pop ‘Faceplant’ deals with the the subject substance abuse and it’s aftermath. “I’ve come too far to turn back now”. Continuing the same theme is ‘Blackout’ is a lovely mid-tempo fusion of strings, pretty harmonies and plenty of heartbreak and booze. Travelling and moving on are explored on ‘Big Brown Bus’, which sees Ruston leaving San Antonio in Texas and heading south to Mexico. I really like the song’s strong storytelling and pedal steel solo. Wonderful word play and story telling abound on ‘Mercury’ “A dying star with a junkyard heart”.
The tempo drops for the reflective and atmospheric ‘Anchors’ dealing with the end of a relationship. Lush and beautiful harmonies provided by by a female choir including Joy Williams (Civil Wars), Natalie Hemby and wife Kacey really enrich ‘Just For the Record’. ‘Trying To Let Her’ is another down tempo reflective love song about a man trying to figure out his live and relationships. ‘She is trying to love me and I’m trying to let her’.
One of my favourite songs on the album is the classy and classic ‘Jericho’. Again very reflective, personal and inward looking with a memorable hook, It finds Ruston channeling the dark minimalism of Bruce Springsteen's ‘Nebraska’ with a stark guitar-and-a-harmonica aesthetic. He uses the biblical city's ancient wall as a representation of his own isolation, but it's cut through with the harmonies of Natalie Hemby and ex-Civil Wars member Joy Williams, with whom Ruston co-wrote the tune. Together, they lift the song up, singing on the chorus, "I raised Jericho around me, but these walls are built to scale."
The title track ‘Dying Star’ drifts away on pedal steel accents and light percussion. The album closes with the rather short but perfectly formed ‘Brightly Burst Into The Air’.