Queens-based singer, songwriter and bandleader Nico Hedley has dubbed his first full length album Painterly. It’s an odd sort of adjective, but just one listen to the album’s first track and its first single “Tennessee” explains it succinctly and sufficiently. This is an album whose lyrics and sound are indeed painterly. The lyrics, delivered in a manner that somehow straddles offhand and intense, in brief strokes limn the ennui and terror of being on tour with an indie band.
Fifty miles to Tennessee
I hope we find somewhere to sleep
Tonight won’t be different
It’s always the same
Truck stop at dawn
Cornfields for days
And I’ll take my turn
At the wheel for a while
There’s nothing to do
But think it through
As I watch the signs fly by
And the shimmering lines…
Musically Hedley and this disparate but talented band also paint the scene from a broad pallette of sonic colors. In particular, Adam Robinson’s tenor sax, Hamilton Belk’s pedal steel, and Jeff Widner’s drums come and go, emphasizing a word or a feeling in Hedley’s lyrics, the horn sometimes sounding like a guitar, the pedal steel sometimes like a horn. It’s a subtly masterful performance and it drew me in to the album. I’m betting if you like genre-bending but personal and accessible Americana, it’ll do the same for you.
The second single “Waking Dreams” at times feels like a languid Dolorean song – and Hedley’s voice sometimes sounds a bit like Al James’s – but then the sax, pedal steel and Ryan El-Solh’s electric guitar blast in with a psychedelic sonic melange. Is this the reality intruding on his waking dream, or vice versa?
It quickly becomes apparent that the core of this ensemble (Hedley’s former Brooklyn roommates) El-Solh, bassist Carmen Rothwell, hornman Robinson and drummer Widner all come from the jazz world, particularly that bassist, who effortlessly moves from plucked to bowed and back again more than once, starting with “Something To Make.” The rhythm section’s ability to make unexpected choices that nevertheless serve the songs (just listen to them on “Sounds So Familiar”) keep this music that’s full of country touches from sounding like “just” country music.
But there are strong country elements aside from the pedal steel guitar. A cursory listen to Hedley’s songs make it apparent that one of his musical role models is George Jones. It’s nowhere more apparent than in the sad slow waltz “I Just Wanna Dance.” The title song “Painterly” comes off as 19th century poetry put to music, and rightly so; it seems to be an homage to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry itself was described as painterly. The song lulls along peacefully, with a slight edge of tension created by arco bass and electric guitar fills, until in the final moments the band crashes in with a wall of noise – which abruptly halts as the beginning of the album’s most jazz-influenced tune “The Tower” begins. Which is followed by the most country song, “It Gets Easy.” This one too, by the end, would fit with the Downtown noise rock scene, so it’s not entirely country!
Hedley’s “family band” musicians generally don’t make the easy or expected choices, and neither does Hedley in his songwriting, which skirts the line between confessional and abstract. Those who pine that Americana is at worst a dead end or at best very tired need look no further than practitioners like Nico Hedley and his Painterly. This is top notch American music.
(Whatever’s Clever, 2021)