It’s been three years since the last true solo album from Iron & Wine. It’s been two long years since Devendra Banhart’s last release. And yes, we’ve had some great collections / repackages from Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, but they also serve as reminders that these musical geniuses are gone. So where have all the great singer / songwriters gone in the past few years? Okay, so all the male singer / songwriters given that 2006 featured great albums by Jenny Lewis, Emily Haines, Amy Millan, Cat Power, Joanna Newsom, Neko Case and My Brightest Diamond. So far this year, fourteen out of my top fifteen albums have all been by groups. It’s about time for a solo artist to knock my socks off, and I’ve finally found him in Jonathan Wilson.
Wilson was formerly with the largely unsung band Muscadine in the ’90s. Since then, he’s been somewhat a background impresario, assisting the likes of the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and either toured or played with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Vetiver, Jenny Lewis, the Elected, the Autumn Defense and Bert Jansch. That’s quite a résumé already, but that isn’t what’s most impressive about Wilson. For that you have to look to and listen to Frankie Ray, the artist’s debut solo album. With as many press sheets as I get likening a musician to Nick Drake or Gram Parsons, it’s difficult to find one that actually lives up to that kind of hype. Wilson, however, is the real deal. His music blends that rainy English folk with the east coast mountain music he grew up around and the Laurel Canyon / Southwestern country rock that was so dominant in past decades.
Frankie Ray is a road movie in song. Jonathan Wilson drives you all over the map of country, folk, western, rock and everything in between. Opener “Your Ears are Burning” has you picturing a stretched out cinemascope image of Clint Eastwood or David Carradine with its Ennio Morricone meets Kill Bill, Pt.2 lonesome Western samurai tone. “Carousel” and “White Turquoise” sound sweetly reminiscent of the Eagles and tourmates the Elected and the Autumn Defense with their organ backed Laurel Canyon laid back honeyed vibe. “El Matador,” “Road 92” and “Sing to You” with whispery vocals and haunting string sections are what will remind most of Nick Drake. It’s as if Wilson channeled Drake through some peyote fueled hallucinatory native dream quest. “For Every 10” travels in a different direction altogether, as if Wilson had to write a song that was a combination of Gilmour and Waters’ styles, a possible cast-off from The Wall. Clocking in at just over ten minutes long, it surely rivals Floyd’s usual song lengths.
Most of the songs on Frankie Ray last longer than most pop tracks, usually clocking in at the five minute mark. Considering that the album houses sixteen tracks, which can make for an incredibly extended experience. Wilson himself acknowledges the possible problem of length by saying that he will “get some grief” over it, but when this many songs are this good, what’s to complain about? “Yonder Lies My Love,” for instance, is a subtle and intricately woven song, tucked into the last third of the album. “You Can Have Me” proves that Wilson can channel bouncy pop energy as well as the hushed sounds of folk. “Born to Be My True Love” finds Wilson inhabiting the same spaces as Gram Parsons, desperate for a female foil as great as Emmylou. “Dreaming” is one of the best tracks on the album, hiding in the fourteenth spot, sounding like a refugee from Sticky Fingers or an early Black Crowes album. This song is proof positive that if a track this good is buried at the end of the album, the rest has to be as great, and it is. It may be old hat to cover Beatles’ tracks, but no one’s covered “I’m Looking Through You” like Wilson in his hidden track at the end of the album. There’s not a whole lot of information, reviews or otherwise to be found on Jonathan Wilson yet, but based on the strength of Frankie Ray, that’s most likely about to change. Gram, Elliott and Nick may be gone, but there’s more than a whole lot of promise in Jonathan Wilson.