BY FRED MILLS
Anybody who’s followed Winston-Salem, NC, songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster’s career to date—particularly if they were fortunate enough to hear him back in the ‘80s during his tenure with the almost-grabbed-the-brass-ring Right Profile—is in for a shock when they hear this album. I don’t mean “artist takes an unexpected stylistic detour” kind of shock; as with the RP and subsequent outfits the Carneys and the Pinetops, Foster still specializes in power pop-tinged Americana, with obvious reference points being Springsteen, Petty and McGuinn. But this is the kind of record that can stop you in your tracks it’s so good. Nothing, I mean nothing, he’s done before comes close to the songcraft and musicianship displayed on The Arrow, recorded with Mitch Easter at Easter’s Fidelitorium and featuring a roster of remarkable musicians that includes Easter’s old studio cohort Don Dixon on bass, John Pfiffner and Easter on guitars, Brian Landrum on drums, Tres Chicas’ Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm on backing vocals and Blakey’s husband Ecki Heins on strings.
Foster notched significant press kudos with 2006’s Million Star Hotel, and rightly so; that record’s downcast vibe yet uplifting affect cast a lasting emotional glow. It’s clear now, though, that it and the earlier, equally fine The Leaves Turn Upside Down were mere preludes. Throughout The Arrow there’s a profound sense of how emotions can suffuse every waking hour and pierce us—like arrows, to be sure—to our core.
One song in particular stands out, “The Sun Will Shine Again,” so aglow with musical grace and lyrical optimism that it never fails to chase the proverbial clouds away for me no matter what kind of shitty day I may have been having. It improbably stacks a succession of what I call “little moments”: from a Fleetwood Mac-esque intro that beds a rippling tremolo guitar lick atop a delicate piano melody, through an Everlys-worth “ooo-oooh” harmony vocal interlude and a glorious, parting-of-the-heavens climax, to the final, elegant ballet of a guitar solo that serves as the song’s denouement. The result is that same bring-you-to-your-knees feeling that certain songs prompt—the Byrds’ 12-string fueled “Chestnut Mare,” for example, or Laura Nyro’s grandly soaring “And When I Die,” or perhaps even the Flamin’ Groovies’ boisterously exuberant “Shake Some Action.” Lyrically, there’s a serene whiff of déjà vu as Foster subtly invokes Springsteen, Patti Smith, R.E.M. and the Walker Brothers:
“Won’t you drive to the river tonight with me
Down by the old piss factory
We’ll jump in and pretend
Won’t you drive to the river tonight with me…
The sun will shine again on your dark days
All the pain will burn and blow away
Yeah, the sun will shine again on your dark days.”
The rest of the album is no less memorable. It’s clearly patterned as a song cycle with a specific beginning, middle and end rather than just a collection of smartly-sequenced but unconnected tunes; for example, the final track quotes directly from the first one, while acoustic interlude “I Will Understand” contains lyrical and melodic references to the earlier “When You Break.” Musically, there’s raucous, Stones-styled riff rock (“Life Is Sweet”), folky introspection (“The Arrow”), subtly baroque piano-pop (“The Lucky One”) and blazing power pop (“Young Tigers Disappear”), all abetted by a crafty deployment of melodic hooks and intuitive, mature arrangements. There’s also an intriguing, brief, hidden track that serves as a coda at the end of the album.
Throughout, Foster sings, in his trademark high tenor, of missed chances and wistful wanderings, of the uncertainties that accompany the vicissitudes of aging while still taking heed of that eternal teenager that still resides somewhere inside him—and by extension, the rest of us. “I get this feeling, not like before,” he confesses, in one tune, “that what comes down the road is alright. It’s like believing in an open door, and you step on through into some new light.” Yet, although there is optimism to be found here, the fact that the record begins with a brash swagger on “Life is Sweet” but concludes on a far less cocky note (in closing track “The Arrow” he wonders “if I’m the arrow, then who’s the bow?”) suggests that Foster, like so many great songwriters before him, grasps the inevitable impermanence of life and the situations we find ourselves in.
(Aside: it’s perhaps worth noting, too, that Foster shows his hand, ever so subtly, as a lifelong student of rock at various points. Early on, in “Life Is Sweet,” he advises everyone to “stop breaking down,” in what might be—given the tune’s structure—an Exile On Main Street nod. Likewise, the aforementioned “Piss Factory” and “The River” allusions can hardly be coincidental. There are other little sonic and lyrical “easter eggs” to be found here and there on the album that make it a delight to scrutinize.)
For folks who like their songwriting sharp and their sonics sublime, this is the album you’ve been waiting for. And for fans of classic Southern pop—dB’s, Let’s Active, Connells, R.E.M. of course—it’s a gift of epic proportions that’ll rekindle all that jangle lust you’ve kept tucked away in your hearts these many years. I keep listening to it trying to find flaws or loose threads only to detect none, even after, I dunno, 30 listens. There have even been moments when it’s literally taken my breath away. Mark my words, this five-out-of-five-stars album will be on more than a few best-of lists come 2014’s end, including mine.
DOWNLOAD: “The Sun Will Shine Again,” “Life Is Sweet,” “The Lucky One”