Published Mar 11, 2014If you were one of the Kickstarter backers of Will Phalen's new album, it was money well spent. The Dirt and the Air and the Grass is a lush, fearless and endlessly rewarding example of killer songwriting and a classic folk-rock sensibility brought to bear on contemporary Americana.
Phalen, who released a psych-folk solo in 2011 titled Holy Ghost/Gold Coast, appears here with a revamped version of his Milwaukee-based alt-country band the Stereo Addicts, whose two previous records, Visions and Revisions (2007) and Middle West (2009), drew comparisons with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Gram Parsons, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Wilco. This record will draw more comparisons yet, likely to musical royalty like Brian Wilson, Daniel Lanois and Ray LaMontagne, and rightly so.
Where Phalen sets himself apart, though, is with this album's sonic diversity and the intense visuality of his lyrics. The songs collected here work together to create a life-sized diorama of a Midwestern townscape. In one corner is a serial killer tracking his next victim ("The Saw Song," an utterly addictive track in a '60s pop disguise), over here a Michigan woman watches the sky for extraterrestrials ("Shadow People") and check out the teenager who's locked himself in his room ("Done"). Quoth the raven ("Shed Your Leaves"), nevermore ("Gone") and here's a sad soul knocking lightly at the door ("You Best Be There"). And where, by the way, does that river lead ("Waters Get High")? The title track supplies the scene with the rest of its earthly, life-essential elements.
While Phalen's earlier albums implied that he was a multi-dimensional artist, The Dirt and the Air and the Grass confirms it. Phalen alternates between bold and ambient strokes, layering in hum-along harmony, acoustic twang, pedal-steel guitar and plugged-in rock to astonishing, stand-up-and-listen effect. This may just be an early candidate for alt-country record of the year. (Independent)