When Jarrod Dickenson delivers a new album, it’s like the changing of the seasons. His first, ‘Ashes On The Ground’ was the result of ten years’ grind on the stages of Nashville, and had all the weathered brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of The Revenant. His second album ‘The Lonesome Traveller’ was a sprightly, folk-centric piece reared on the joys of spring. Now on his third full-length release, ‘Ready The Horses’, we find Dickenson at his most triumphant. It’s an album of infectious glow, piling soul and gospel influences atop Dickenson’s country-folk roots and his balladeer’s knack for story-telling. A knack that has never been keener.
For an album as American as Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose, it was surprisingly cut in the UK. Recorded on two inch tape reels, it’s this vintage technique that gives the album its tactile southern warmth. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was laid down in some tumbledown church on the banks of the Mississippi.
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That gospel influence is clear from the get-go. ‘Faint Of Heart’ opens on a shivering Hammond organ, which remains the album’s engine for much of the runtime. Dickenson’s cello-string vocals drizzle over like molasses, echoing delta royalty like Son House or Leadbelly. The spiritual ends, the shuffle-beat kicks in, and Dickenson weaves a tale of workingman’s blues that belongs on the stern of a paddle-boat. This trend only grows with second track ‘Take It From Me’, swept by a rousing swell of gorgeous brass and a stirring gospel chorus fit for a New Orleans funeral. ‘Way Past Midnight’ is a toe-tapping piano number from the soul old-school, and chain-gang blues track ‘Gold Rush’ echoes Tom Waits’ ‘Swordfishtrumbones’ with its clanging production, acidic guitars and Dickenson’s menacing, bad hombre delivery.
Yet Dickenson’s country-folk roots are still strong. Whispering ballad ‘I Won’t Quit’ or folksy duet with wife Claire Dickenson ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ show Dickenson can hold the listener in his palm whether he’s stripped back or bombastic. But perhaps the album’s zeniths are the points where the old and new intermingle. ‘California’, a reworking of a track from ‘Ashes On The Ground’ and also featuring Claire Dickenson, blends folksy restraint and euphoric soul abandon for an anthemic portrait of a love long lost that shines like a sunset on the river.
But through it all the lavish production, Dickenson’s lyrics remain the star. Whether it’s a tale of love, loss, ailing desperados or desperate prospectors, Dickenson’s lyrics are always delicately crafted, and at their best are miniature Americana narratives. Dickenson has more in common with Walt Whitman than a taste for broad-rimmed hats, and more in common with Mark Twain than well-sculpted facial hair.
It’s not clear what led Dickenson to craft such a tribute to the literary south. Now based in New York, maybe he pines for that southern sun. But one thing is clear. Jarrod Dickenson is a man with a lot to say, and a man with the means to say it beautifully.