Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 30: Chuck Ragan, "Feast Or Famine"

Artist: Chuck Ragan
Album: Feast Or Famine
Year: 2007

Though one can make the case that the roots of punk rock can offer the easiest and most direct route to convey ones feelings, there are times when this style is simply not enough for some artists.  There are a handful of cases where a member of a punk-style band needed to find another outlet for the full expression of both their emotions and talents, and few of these projects have proved to be as mesmerizing and completely moving as one finds in the solo work of Chuck Ragan.  Having made his name as the frontman in the post-punk/hardcore band, Hot Water Music, it was in the waning years of that band that his talents as a singular performer began to become obvious.  With his gritty voice and unforgiving lyrics, few have shown as wide a range of talent as Ragan, and he was unquestionably at his best throughout his 2007 solo album, Feast Or Famine.  Each song on the album has its own personality, from scathing social criticisms to some of the more beautiful love-type songs that have been recorded in recent memory.  His ability to completely bare his soul and quickly connect with the listener is what makes this album so fantastic, and it is without question one of the finest albums of the past decade.  With each song having a different appeal, there is simply no getting past the power and presence found on every second of Feast Or Famine.

While many may be quick to try and write-off Ragan as another "punk gone folk" act, the fact of the matter is, there is so much more going on within his musical arrangements, that he is far beyond such a simple classification.  From the soaring harmonicas to the touches of violin and organ, the overall mood of the album moves into a unique category all its own.  It is this seemingly odd blend of the styles of punk, folk, and almost gypsy sounds that makes Chuck Ragan's music so refreshing, as there is a sound of purity and authenticity that is rarely found elsewhere in music.  Yet there is also an urgency that runs underneath the entire record, and it is there that Ragan's connection to his old band becomes most clear.  The way in which the mood seems to shift back and forth throughout "throughout the tracks, pulling the beauty and energy from both styles, that is clearly one of the keys that keeps the listener completely mesmerized, as the combination of the complex arrangements and straightforward sound makes the record impossible to ignore or forget.  There is a very present "family" feel to the album, and yet there is also a sense of pain and frustration running through the tracks that further sets it apart from anything else being recorded at the time.  Though at its core, the sound found on Feast Or Famine may be seen as folk, there is far too much going on around these simple guitar pieces to leave it with only a single definition, and it is this same fact that pushes the album into an uncategorizable, yet extraordinary musical experience.

However, while one cannot deny the brilliant musical arrangements found all across Feast Or Famine, there is no denying that for any moment anywhere on the record, the focus is anywhere but the completely captivating voice and lyrics of Chuck Ragan.  Within his previous band, both of these elements were a bit hidden behind the much louder musical structures, yet it is clear that when given the chance, he knows few equals in either area.  Bringing a gruff, yet completely honest sound, one cannot help but be drawn in by Ragan's singing, and the words which he sings are so perfect that they can easily be related to by anyone.  It is this almost universal quality that makes all of his songs so fantastic, and on tracks like "California Burritos," he turns the pen on himself and unleashes one of the most unforgiving and emotional critiques that can be found anywhere in music history.  With verses that dig deep into the the idea of wasted time and how we interact with one another, it is the chorus of the song that is nothing short of a rallying cry.  Even for those who may not be a fan of the style, there is an almost adversarial, confrontational, yet uplifting mood that can be felt when Ragan shouts lyrics like, "...I can’t stand standing for nothing, when standing up is all I know..."  It is sentiments such as this, as well as the straightforward, honest way that he delivers them that makes every track on the album stand so tall in an era when truly great music has become a rare occurrence.

While his previous band, Hot Water Music, was rather easy to place into a genre, when he released his 2007 solo album, Feast Or Famine, Chuck Ragan made it clear that his own talents went far beyond that band or any possibility of being placed into a single style.  Bringing elements of punk, folk, Americana, and even sounds of the gypsy style, the way in which he crafts the simple, yet rather full musical arrangements throughout this album are nothing short of superb.  Furthermore, he brings a diversity in the styles and sounds within these arrangements that proves just how talented a writer and composer he is, and the album remains one of the finest of the entire decade.  Leaving all "studio magic" aside, the album is full of deeply emotional, perfectly constructed songs, and it is the type of record which can easily be enjoyed by fans of any musical background.  It is this ability to have such a wide appeal that serves as a testament to his talents, and few songs on the record pack a similar sonic and lyrical punch to that found on every moment of Feast Or Famine.  In many ways, Ragan seems to be trying to make sense of the world and the state it is in, and through these unrelenting critiques, the songs become some of the finest, yet overlooked rallying cries for a generation that may have forgotten what it means to stand up and be counted.  Carrying the torch for everything that makes "real" music so fantastic and impossible to ignore, there are few artists in modern music that can bring a similar amount of emotion and musical creativity that one can find within Chuck Ragan's phenomenal 2007 album, Feast Or Famine.

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