Wednesday, August 23, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1669: Evan Bartels

This next review is my fourth straight 4-star selection. This means I’m on quite a winning streak. It also means I buy a lot of great music. You’re welcome!

Disc 1669 is…The Devil, God & Me

Artist: Evan Bartels

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover?  Evan looking pensive in the half-light of the afternoon. Maybe he’s worried about that Grade 9 math exam he didn’t study for, or that his mom will find out he’s been taking booze out of the liquor cabinet and topping it up with water. Based on the songs on the record, probably the latter…

How I Came To Know It: Way back in 2017 I read a review of this record in some obscure folk magazine the name of which I have long forgotten. I then went out and found his stuff on Youtube. I liked it but many years passed without it joining my collection. Bartels released a second record, and then a third, but despite my growing excitement I couldn’t find any of them anywhere. He didn’t show up in music stores, he wasn’t available on Amazon, and he didn’t even have a Bandcamp account.

Finally, earlier this year I succumbed to six years of unresolved desire and bought all three of his albums straight from his website. You win, Evan.

How It Stacks Up: I have three Evan Bartels albums, and this is the best one, so #1.

Rating: 4 stars

Evan Bartels has one of those voices that hurts so good. Somewhere in between the teary tenor of Jason Isbell and the bleak baritone of John Moreland, Bartels carves his own bit of heartache.

His preferred media for emotionally wiping you out is the same style as both those gentlemen, delivering Americana alt-country tunes full of deep-rooted confessionals full of hardness. This is wallow served up as a double (or as the song on the album reflects, “Two at a Time”).

I’m a sucker for this stuff, that is working man, hard-scrabble stuff. It is basic 4-4 time, or just as often a waltz, slowly moving around the floor, spinning its web of easy rhymes, plain language and perfect phrasing. Do you love those stoic characters in a show that say very little, but seem to speak entirely in folksy wisdom and hard lessons? Then Bartels is your guy.

The record starts with “Widow” a tune that reminded me of mid-nineties Steve Earle in a good way. Bartels has a snarl to his voice and seems very aware of his own intent to write a hit. I don’t think he did, but the song has a nice rising power to it all the same.

Ultimately, as much as it rocks out “Widow” also feels like it’s trying too hard. That’s OK, as Bartels is just warming up for track two, the sublime “Demons”. “Demons” starts quiet, full of gentle guitar pluck and a raspy delivery from Bartels telling what a bad man he is – mostly to himself. Best line:

“My demon's kiss was the whiskey on my lips
And it burned like fire on the tip of my tongue”

It isn’t all that complicated, but the way Bartels’ characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, it is hard not to go all in. This song (and its follow up “Two at a Time”) will both have you raising imaginary shots of Jim Beam or regretting a few of the real ones you may have drained in days gone past.

Bartels goes full John Moreland on “The Way It Breaks,” a blue-collar anthem about getting knocked down and taking pride in the simple act of survival. And it is downhill from here. By the time Bartels gets to “Wish They Would” he’s openly wishing his smoking habit would just kill him as advertised. All that, and you’re not even halfway through the record.

At this point clever readers will have ascertained this record is not the feel-good fun-fest of the year. Bartels is gonna go deep down and look for something raw. The vocals are full of power and rebellion, but these are songs that are fundamentally about resilience, not reassurance. Life will knock you down. Your job, simple as it sounds, is to keep getting up.

Bartels doesn’t break a lot of new ground on “The Devil, God & Me”; these woeful themes have all been explored before. Also, the basic nature of their imagery isn’t going to inspire beyond common tropes of alcohol, drugs and heartache. That said, Bartels takes well-worn roads and rides them well to the ragged edge. He doesn’t have the same lyrical talent of giants like Earle, Moreland or Isbell, but every word he sings comes with the same honest conviction. That, and a Grade A vocal delivery makes this record more than worth your time.

Best tracks: Demons, Two at a Time, The Way it Breaks, Wish They Would, The Devil God & Me

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