On the back of his debut album Angeleno Sam Outlaw quickly became a critics and fan favourite with the record declared International Album Of The Year at the latest UK Americana Awards ceremony. He’s one of a new wave (sortish) of artists, male and female, who are eschewing the current Nashville wave of brash and brassy country pop rock preferring to dig deeper into the past. In Outlaw’s case he somewhat out on a limb as he’s out there in LA as opposed to East Nashville, Austin or North Carolina but he uses Los Angeles as a fulcrum for his music to the extent that he had the esteemed Ry Cooder produce Angeleno while LA Weekly stated that he was a “contender to be the biggest country star LA has produced since Dwight Yoakam.”
Tenderheart is less varied than its predecessor with the majority of the songs somewhat yearning although there are some muscular moments such as the guitar breaks on Diamond Ring. In fact much of the album has moments that recall the days when Waddy Wachtel or David Lindley were the guys propelling the songs and that leads us into the likes of Jackson Browne who Outlaw approximates on the excellent Bougainvillea, I Think which could have sat on Browne’s first album.
The album opens with the reflective Everyone’s Looking For Home which starts off well, brooding organ softly swelling with malleted percussion as Outlaw’s weary voice is cosseted by harmonies before a short crescendo of strings and horns disturb the peace briefly. Bottomless Mimosas is brimful of sweet country sounds, warm pedal steel and the soft shoe shuffle percussion waft the song along as Outlaw sings of a sense of ennui capturing perfectly the vacuity of everyday life. Here Outlaw captures perfectly his thoughts on Los Angeles. As he said recently to Rolling Stone, “There is something special about Los Angeles, a special sadness. There is a faded beauty that is here, that kind of strange following of dreams while dreams are being crushed in a regular basis.”
Outlaw roams across an LA musical topography. The title song is a soft rock ballad of the type that used to hit the charts but Trouble is more in keeping with the late Warren Zevon’s muscular approach although it lacks Zevon’s sardonic wit. Say It To Me is dominated by some wonderful zippy pedal steel over a heavy drum beat as it recalls the darker side of sun dappled Topanga Canyon days, latter day Byrds meets post Manson Terry Melcher. She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Off) is a riff on the country tropes of Merle Haggard (and George Jones) while Two Broken Hearts is somewhat akin to Gram Parsons zoning into the Bakersfield sound.
Towards the end of the album Outlaw offers the smooth pop of Now She Tells Me, a sunny breeze of a song that’s almost in Jimmy Buffet territory and which disguises the lyrical content of a stalker’s grim thoughts. This is a glorious song and testament to Outlaw’s writing skills. The album closes with a raw sounding recording of Look At You Now which has Outlaw and a female chorus singing over a stripped down setting on a song that is replete with accusation. All in all a fine album that on the surface is a friendly listen but with some delving reveals a darker side. Somewhat appropriate for a paean to Sin City.
A regular visitor to these shores Sam Outlaw is appearing at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival in July.