Not only is Chuck Ragan a member of one of the best punk rock bands of the last twenty years, but he’s also established himself in the,ever popular, acoustic scene too. Having toured around the UK as a solo artist many times, he’s crossed paths with a number of fantastic singer/songwriters. In Sam Russo, Jimmy Islip and Helen Chambers, he’s found some of the UK’s finest, and they don’t disappoint.
Chuck kicks off the record and, rather than use original songs or tracks from his forthcoming solo release, he’s decided to cover some of his favorite artists. Lending his voice to the words of Helen Chambers, Darren Gibson and Leatherface, he pulls each track off expertly and makes each song his own. Did you expect anything less?. The addition of backing vocals from, fellow Hot Water Music member, Chris Wollard are a nice touch and work well in contrast with Chuck’s main vocal. The strongest of the three is definitely ‘Not Superstitious’ (Leatherface), but I have a soft spot for ‘Stephen Patrick’ because I love the original and I can’t resist a Morrissey reference.
Taking on the arduous task of following Chuck is Sam Russo. Russo’s released a few records before this, but it’s nice to hear him on a more polished recording. Not only are they more polished than previous recordings, but there’s definitely more to them. Electric guitars and subtle percussion accompany his acoustic, making his tracks the most full sounding of the bunch. I’d go as far as saying, Russo is my favorite songwriter around right now, mainly because it’s hard not to relate to what he’s saying. His words are as simple and poignant as ever, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can’t relate to a song like ‘Tinned Peaches And Diamond Rings’ – “I pawned everything that I own/It wasn’t much but I should’ve known/that she’d say no” gets me every time.
Whilst Chuck and Sam went for the softer more heartfelt route with their tracks, Jimmy Islip’s additions bring in a nice change of pace. They’re the least folky, most upbeat and the most stripped down tracks on the record (aside from a few vocal effects). They feel more like punk songs played on an acoustic guitar. That’s no bad thing, and isn’t a surprise given that he plays in so many punk bands. With that said, the tracks aren’t overly aggressive, but they’re definitely tracks to throw your fists in the air and sing along to. ‘1990’, in particular, is one bound to leave throats sore by the nights end.
After Jimmy’s selection of punk tunes, Helen Chambers’ trio of softer, heartfelt country songs provide the closer to this fantastic split record. Her distinctive vocal style sets her apart from any other singer I’ve heard in recent years, and she knows how to use her voice to her advantage. Her vocal range is incredible. ‘Speak Your Name’, a purely A Capella song, demonstrates this perfectly. Some might see it as brave for an artist to do something like this but, when you’ve a voice like Helen’s, why not? Not only that, but she brings two fantastic country/folk songs to the table too, the subtle extra instrumentation on those songs working really well with Helen’s acoustic guitar. Is there anything she can’t do?!
What I hope I’ve made clear here is that when Chuck Ragan recommends you something to listen to, you listen to it. Those coming to this for three new Chuck Ragan songs will be happy, as they’ll also have three new artists to listen to as well. These twelve songs are poignant, rabble-rousing and beautiful and, I like to think, prove that the art of good songwriting isn’t confined to a select few. In short, go and buy this. You’ll love it.
To buy this, extremely limited, split 12″ record, head over to Specialist Subject Records. Whilst you’re there, check out some of their other releases. You won’t be disappointed.