Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock. Louds Hymn.

Regular readers will know that Blabber’n’Smoke have championed North Carolina’s Michael Rank since his first release with his country folk roots conglomeration Stag turned up two years ago. Rank rapidly followed that disc, Kin, with two others, In The Weeds and Mermaids with all three almost perfect collections of wearied and wounded laments and cries from the heart. To have three such albums from the one artist in a space of around 18 months almost beggars belief but amazingly Rank has gone and done it again with Deadstock which is at least the equal of its three predecessors. Rank again recorded his basic tracks before adding Stag regulars John Howie, drums, Billie Feather and Jessie Huebner, bass, John Teer, fiddle, mandolin, Nathan Gloub, pedal steel and Alex Iglehart, guitar to the mix. His regular vocal foil, Emily Frantz is missing from the action however Rank adds the excellent Skylar Gudasz on harmony vocals on several of the songs while Chip Robinson from The Backsliders helps out vocally on two songs. The end result is ten songs of aching beauty with guitars haltingly picked, fiddle slowly sawed and pedal steel weeping as Rank plumbs the depths of his emotions and, like a phoenix risen from the ashes, is reborn. Indeed his journey from the wracked hopelessness of Kin, an album recorded in the aftermath of a breakup, to the tentative optimism of some of the songs here (albeit seen through a dark prism) is a classic cold and dark tale which the music reflects, recalling the chilling images of the movie, Winter’s Bone.

Now, some of the above might seem a tad over the top but to these ears Rank has produced some of the most compelling music of the past few years. The opening bars of Deadstock , a weary guitar strum with his raw voice singing “I ain’t takin’ no more prisoners anymore, ‘cos I done run out of chain. And I ain’t taking no more lovers anymore, ‘cos they all end up the same” sends shivers up my spine before the band kicks in like the James-Younger gang galloping through Northfield, proud, rural, earthy and defiant, the fiddle saws like a demon as the song draws to a close. Idle Hands chills the air and it’s almost impossible to cast aside images glommed from the cinema of dirt poor Americans scrabbling to live on a blasted land, shattered by a civil war and throughout the album (and indeed all of the albums) there’s an antebellum air as if Rank was keeping alive centuries old traditions. We’ve mentioned Rank’s affinity to Keith Richard’s country blues before and The World On Fire is yet another song that could have been snatched from Stones’ outtakes for Satanic Majesties. Slow as Mississippi mud the song ripples with mandolin and subtle electric guitar licks. Teeth Of The Sun alternately shimmers and sparks with the verses held aloft by tentative mandolin plucking and plaintive fiddle while pedal steel blossoms wonderfully on the vibrant refrain, altogether it’s a gorgeous song. For anyone who thinks The Felice Brothers are the business when it comes down to chunky, funky country rock then The Stars are Brighter will blow your socks off as it seesaws and creaks away, a porch song to end all porch songs as if it were captured on sepia film stock way back when. A weeping fiddle introduces the superb All The Animals, another song that cuts to the bone as Rank and Gudasz almost whisper into the microphone creating a hermetic world of broken love and despair as the music swirls gently around like a wounded whippoorwill.

Rank has dedicated all four of his albums to his son, Bowie Ryder and here he sings directly to him on the song, Son, where he reflects on his own maturation as a parent and offers advice to the boy, a rare ray of sun on an otherwise dark album. Indeed the album ends with Bounty, a raw revenge story that again recalls frozen ground and winter bare trees as he avows a terrible vengeance on a killer threatening to cut a line right down his spine. Chilling and hypnotic and absolutely brilliant.

There’s nothing else to say here really other than that if you like raw, bleak and spellbinding “dark Country” then Rank is the man to see. All four albums are recommended but Deadstock might just be a nose ahead so far. Mind you, he might come up with something better in a few month’s time.

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