Sunday, July 12, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1385: John Moreland

This next album made me think of an old friend who moved to the United States a few years ago. She lives in Tulsa now, and while I think of her from time to time, I only write rarely, and I’ve never visited. That’s on me. Hopefully I’ll see her again when the madness that is this pandemic ends.

Disc 1385 is…. High On Tulsa Heat
Artist: John Moreland

Year of Release: 2015


Seriously, John, there’s no need to shout.

How I Came To Know It: Just me digging through his back catalogue. This was the hardest one to find, and I eventually special ordered it through my local record store. I guess I could have done that all along but sometimes I like to hunt for a while first.

How It Stacks Up: I now have four John Moreland albums. I like them all, and given that they’re all fairly new to me, it’s hard to rank them. But since you’re not here to listen to me equivocate, I’ll say “High on Tulsa Heat” is…third. There.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

“High on Tulsa Heat” is John Moreland’s love letter to his home state of Oklahoma. Of course, this being John Moreland, most of the stories he chooses to tell are about unrequited love. That’s just how the man rolls.

There are three things you can count on with a John Moreland record: Moreland’s gravelly, mournful voice, emotionally infused guitar playing and top-grade songwriting.

First up is the voice. Moreland’s voice is a rumbling big block V8 engine, that runs on grief. He isn’t going to climb through three and a half octaves. Hell, he doesn’t even use falsetto. However, what he does he does well. He has the voice of someone who was up all night drinking bourbon and beer alone in his apartment. It doesn’t speak of healthy living, but it sure gives him the right amount of hurt and regret.

His guitar playing is sneaky good. There’s nothing spectacular going on, but it is laden with feeling throughout. He hits the notes and chords with hard, deliberate playing. The combination is stark and desolate. The hurt in the way he plucks each string is like an underground river, sequestered and surviving deep under the hard pack and away from the desert sun.

The heavy focus on Oklahoma lends a cohesiveness to Moreland’s imagery. It is so pervasive that the landscapes feel like a character unto themselves. Listening to songs like “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” and the title track, you get the impression that Moreland’s home is an old familiar friend, sitting in the background and not saying a lot, but whose presence is reassuring all the same.

Of course, Moreland can’t resist sadness, and the record is replete with him making impassioned pleas to lovers who have already rode off into the sunset. Song titles like “You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry” are early and accurate confirmations you’re in for some heartache. Moreland could come off as maudlin, but instead he just sounds honest. On “You Don’t Care…” he even admits “I’m so damn good at sorrow” even while acknowledging that particular talent isn’t what he needs to win her heart back.

There are lots of great lines on the record, but for me the self-destructive opening of “Cherokee” is the best:

“I guess I got a taste for poison
I’ve given up on ever being well
And I keep mining the horizon
Digging for lies I’ve yet to tell.”

So there you go. He’s got plenty of sad characters, but most of them are self-aware and OK within that reality.

“High on Tulsa Heat” doesn’t possess the same outstanding level that a couple other Moreland records do, but it comes damned close and is well worth your time. It’ll also make you want to go visit Oklahoma, even if you don’t have a friend living there.

Best tracks: Heart’s Too Heavy, Cleveland County Blues, White Flag, Cherokee, American Flags in Black & White

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