Review: Hayes Carll Keeps Topical Fun on 'What It Is'


Rating: 7.5/10

Hayes Carll has one of the most unique voices in Americana music, in both the literary and literal sense. As a songwriter, Carll is a master of the story song, four minute pencil sketches of people on the fringes of polite society. Vocally, there's a droll wit to his Texas drawl, a seemingly unconscious habit of emphasizing words or phrases that is the musical equivalent of the “aw shucks” smile that permanently graces his photos. It's the equivalent of the kid at school who doesn't set out to be the class clown, but always seems to end up in the role due to a natural talent. On his new album What It Is, out Feb. 15, Carll turns that lyrical and vocal wit to his observations on America's current social and political climate.

Topical material isn't really an area Carll has explored in previous work, so he enlisted a number of high profile co-writers to assist him, most notably fellow Americana star Allison Moorer, who also co-produced the album with long time Carll collaborator Brad Jones. Another co-writer is pop soul vocalist Lolo, who collaborated with Carll on the album's most biting satirical number, “Fragile Men.” Backed by a dirge-like blues roll, Carll attempts to soothe men upset by their changing role in society after #MeToo, moaning “the whole world is exploding and I know it feels so strange. It must make you so damn angry, they're expecting you to change.” It's a perfect song for Carll's wry delivery, and lines like “they're debating all your history, unraveling the mystery. And that just isn't fair” practically have the world's smallest violin built into the vocals.

Another satirical gem is “Wild Pointy Finger”, a song Carll co-wrote with Adam Landry. Here's Carll plays the part of a man so immersed in the social media culture of manufactured outrage that his finger acts on its own, pointing at others without his even thinking about it, and even when he tries to sleep. Carll's protagonist watches as his unruly finger “points at anybody who thinks different than me, if you're Marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news...” There's no room for self-reflection here, as the protagonist finally embraces his fate, noting “you'll just be disappointed if you're waiting 'round to see, 'cause my wild pointy finger's never pointing back at me.”

The song that will feel the most familiar to Hayes Carll fans is one of the few solo writes on the album, “Times Like These.” With a rockabilly drive reminiscent of his 2011 hit “Stomp and Holler”, “Times Like These” is a guitar-heavy snapshot of the world around him, where a “billionaire is just taking up my time trying to tell me how he's treated unfair.” Carll dismisses all of the noise by noting that “I just want to do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope for my dreams.”

“Jesus and Elvis” is a return to Carll's home base, a tale of society's oddballs, in this case a bar owner who has turned her establishment into a shrine to all of the favorite things of her son who died in Vietnam, leading to the unlikely pairing of Christ and Elvis Presley, both of whom are immortalized in velvet and lit by the permanent string of Christmas lights. Co-written by Moorer and songwriting legend Matraca Berg (you may not know her, but if you listen to country or Americana, you know her songs), the song is both sad and nostalgic, full of home run lines like “between the drunkards and the band, it's a fitting Promised Land for the King of Kings and the King of Rock and Roll.”

If Americana in 2019 is the second coming of the '60s folk scare, then Hayes Carll is its Arlo Guthrie, the shaggy dog singer who counterbalances the more earnest protest songs of the day with a subtle laugh and a gentle poke at the seats of power. What It Is can be enjoyed equally by those looking for social commentary and those just looking for a good time.

Carll has an album release show at Houston's Continental Club, along with a full slate of tour dates after. You can find the next month below and the full summer slate here.

Feb 15- Continental Club- Houston, TX
Feb 16- White Oak Music Hall- Houston, TX, United States
Feb 17- McGonigel's Mucky Duck- Houston, TX
Feb 18-The Big Barn- Spring, TX
Feb 19- Courville's - Beaumont, TX
Feb 20- The Saxon Pub- Austin, TX
Feb 21- The Continental Club- Austin, TX
Feb 22- 3TEN ACL Live - Austin, TX
Feb 23- Antone’s Nightclub- Austin, TX
Feb 27- Dan's SilverLeaf- Denton, TX
Feb 28- The Kessler Theater- Dallas, TX
Mar 1- Magnolia Motor Lounge- Fort Worth, TX
Mar 2- Hank's Texas Grill- Mckinney, TX
Mar 14- Luck Reunion- Spicewood, TX
Mar 28- Wooly's- Des Moines, IA
Mar 29- The Cedar Cultural Center- Minneapolis, MN
Mar 30- Lincoln Hall- Chicago, IL
Mar 31- The Blind Pig- Ann Arbor, MI, United States