The Upshot: Music drawn from a somewhat primal source – the soulful side of southern rock, somewhat diffused to fit within the realm of a singer-songwriter approach, rough edges and all. It hits a deep nerve, refusing to let go – which can only mean a promise of good things to come. The music, the arrangements and a good deal of the musicianship are simply too good to be any accident.
BY ERIC THOM
Rob Nance is an unknown to me, despite this being his sophomore release. Yet this is simply one of the best albums I’ve heard in some time, blessed by that odd hybrid of southern soul I’ve grown to love from fledgling exposures to Eddie Hinton, Hour Glass recordings or, most accurately, the country-blues-rock invention revealed on those first few Allman Brothers albums. Think southern rock via country blues and a distinctive sense of a soul of its own.
However you choose to define it, Rob Nance exudes it in spades on Signal Fires – a truly off-the-wall recording on his independent label. From sunny cascades of acoustic guitar and deftly finger-picked electric hollow-body to the weeping loneliness of pedal steel, accented by the style of staccato, brushed snare effect that conjures a steam train picking up speed. Vocals that are far from standalone, yet possessed by a ghostly, eerie edge in all their imperfections. Ten simple tracks devoid of anything epic are, rather, music-fired conversations melding heartfelt vocals to very basic musical accompaniment, as if all the same instrument. In fact, it’s often the music and each arrangement that make Signal Fires so special, merging a lifetime of influences to arrive at a distinctive place few others would lay claim to. These original tracks endured the rigors of the road long before they were recorded and it is this process that seems to have created songs locked in some rough, steel-wool tapestry. There are few holes or spaces left for the listener to fill in – every step is laid out as Nance and Company creep across a barren landscape to arrive at no place in particular, creating an uncomplicated, simple soundtrack in the process.
There are no obvious hooks. You won’t find a drum solo or any showy lead guitar. There are many instances of vocals so off that anyone else would’ve re-recorded them – which is the only reason this release can’t score a 5/5. However, Signal Fires works hauntingly well – all piano, harmonica, propulsive drums, country-tinged guitar lines and those emphatically sad harmonies.
Opening with a ghostly acoustic guitar intro, “No Gold” adds stunning pedal steel, electric guitars and drums played with brushes, achieving a sad, mournful, southern rock/country feel that builds and builds but is never resolved. It just ends. Dickey’s “Jessica” comes to mind. As if holding his breath, Nance’s vocal follows the bass-led “Landslide Town” – like a dry leaf chasing the current of a small stream. It is paired with Mike Runyon’s distinctive piano – one of the band’s key strengths, coupled with a larger-than-life synth effect, adding further tension. “Different Ways To Lie” ups the ante with its energetic, upbeat attack, benefiting – again – from Runyon’s piano and the smart touch of uncredited harmonica as Nance retains his tired, weathered tone, his melodic electric guitar riding shotgun throughout. The distinctive guitar lick behind “Nightbirds” becomes its key hook as a massive wall of swirling B3 meets the rhythm section halfway. The disc’s best track is found in “The Breeze” – the penultimate horse-ridin’ song, featuring stunning piano, further distinguishing itself by Nance’s wounded-bird vocals and the harmonies of Andrew Constantine. An uncommon change in time signatures and the burst of energy it provides to what might otherwise be a downtrodden dirge of a composition, “The Breeze” delivers a quiet grace while mining subtle strengths to bristle the hairs on your neck. More comparisons to the Allmans’ sound will ensue – with a double order of Chuck Leavell. The title track provides a mellow, somewhat gentler version of the above as piano and drums merge with the delicate touch of acoustic guitars. “Shelter” continues their bluesy, country fare – a strong acoustic number – yet Nance’s vocals falter, falling out-of-tune more than once. The wickedly powerful organ leading “On My Way” can’t offset Nance’s occasional off-key vocal – revealing a somewhat limited range – while his guitar gently weaves throughout, lacing things together into what is otherwise a beautiful country ballad that begs re-recording. Not to be outdone, “Dear Shadow” leans on B3 prominently, providing another upbeat highlight. The catchy “Getaway Man” presents strong acoustic guitars in a lovely unison yet Nance’s voice heads south again, scuttling what is otherwise a standout composition.
This is clearly a band – the prominent bass lines of (brother) Jordan Nance and crisp drums of Ryan Lassiter join Mike Runyon’s significant keyboard strengths, the odd synthesized effect and the occasional touch of forlorn harmonica. It’s the warm, gentle tones of Nance’s electric guitar that provide the bedrock – his laid-back, finger-style technique recalling a more rudimentary Dickie Betts. Another consistent element is the mournful contribution of Jordan’s pedal steel contributions (when he’s not playing bass), keeping things grounded in a lush country vein.
As a singer, Nance has an unflagging ability to sound hurt, if not entirely desolate and as inconsistent as this instrument can be, it proves the heart and soul of this captivating release.
DOWNLOAD: “No Gold,” “Dear Shadow”