Colorado musician David Starr has been steadily building a following in the UK over the past five years. A trifecta of well regarded releases (Love And Sabotage, The Head And Heart and South And West) alongside his annual touring posited him as a deeply romantic and yearning singer songwriter, well schooled in the attractions of classic American song writing, in particular, the seventies heydays of California’s sun blistered troubadours. A fine guitarist and an excellent raconteur, Starr uses this heritage to grand effect on disc and in performance but on Beauty & Ruin, his most ambitious project to date, he delves into his own past for what must surely be considered as his best album of his career.
Beauty & Ruin is a homage to Starr’s grandfather, Fred Starr, a teacher, politician and novelist, who died in 1973. His last novel, Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, tells the tale of an Arkansas youth, indentured to work for a veteran of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders who fought in the Spanish American wars. The book spans his decades with ‘The Cap’n’, dealing with love, loss, treachery and death, with echoes of Steinbeck and Charles Portis in it. Starr had fond memories of his grandfather but had avoided reading his books until, a few years ago he decided it was time to right this and his reading of Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, sparked his creative spirit. Starr gave a copy of the book to his chum, John Oates, who was equally taken by the story and the pair decided to gather a select group of friends together and ask them to read the music and write songs inspired by it. Jim Lauderdale came on board as did Doug and Telisha Williams (of The Wild Ponies) along with Dana Cooper, Wood Newton, Irene Kelley and Shelley Rae Korntved. Together they crafted the album (with several of them appearing on it) and with Oates producing.
Beauty & Ruin is not a concept album, it doesn’t follow the book’s narrative and can be listened to and enjoyed without any knowledge of the book. However, the songs do pertain to places, people and incidents in the narrative so the disc and the book are definitely companion pieces and for those thinking of reading the story, this review is spoiler free.
Beauty & Ruin is much more expansive than Starr’s previous albums, the music provided by a swarm of players and backing singers. It opens with a simple Starr love song, Laura, for the female protagonist in the book, the cause of much heartache. With its gliding pedal steel over rippling guitars and superlative percussion it’s a reminder of Starr’s love of classic singer songwriter days and this style reappears on the darker title song and then on Road To Jubilee, a song co-written with Jim Lauderdale, which traffics in the narrative songs of Jackson Browne while Fly By Night recalls the Eagles. There’s a more direct country rock influence on Laurel Creek which features Dobro as Starr sings of one of the more devastating events from the book while Irene Kelley provides excellent accompanying vocals. Bury The Young (written by The Wild Ponies) is in a similar vein as it flows as gently as a mountain stream but with a heart of darkness. Americana gothic indeed.
At the centre of the album are two songs on which Starr and company pull out all the stops. Of What Was, Nothing Is Left has a Jackson Browne tilt to it initially with the rhythm section punching it beneath a grand melee of guitars and pedal steel. As the song progresses, Starr’s voice becomes more strident and soulful till, by the end, he’s wound tight as a spring, ready to snap. It’s a powerful song and it’s followed by another highlight on The Cracks Of Time. It’s a gentle but ominous song which opens with pattered hand percussion and mandolin before a glowering electric guitar prowls into sight eventually slithering into a solo which is quite intoxicating. The darkness abides on the night time prowl of My Mother’s Shame which almost growls with an old testament sense of destiny and on which, the guitars are elementally evil as they slouch towards the narrator’s demise.
As in the contradiction of the title, there’s darkness and light here and Starr manages both with equal aplomb. He’s not cutting edge Americana but that’s probably not where he wants to be. Instead, he’s a craftsman with his finger on the pulse of what, for a great many people, was the high point of American song writing. That he does it so well is to be applauded and in Beauty & Ruin he has perhaps crafted his masterpiece. We’re sure his grandfather would be proud.
The album is available on CD and vinyl (which really shows off its striking cover) and Starr has republished his grandfather’s book. All available on his online store. Meanwhile, Starr will be touring the UK in May, all dates here.