Despite not being a full-fledged genre, Jack White and his assorted bandmates have created a sound that is equal parts arena power, dark blues fury, and technical wizardry. But on his major label debut Death Won’t Send A Letter, Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons, with help from Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence and Brendan Benson, have added a new dynamic that is a simplified Midwestern acoustic sound with a richer emotional resonance.
While others in the White camp draw from 70s hard rock and old bluesmen, Chisel’s inspirations are slightly different and just as plentiful. A careful observer will notice just a few tracks in the folk drawl of Bob Dylan, the simple working man rock of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and the quiet, contemplative emotions of Cat Stevens. Chisel’s voice is his most powerful instrument. In the lead track “Born Again”, he channels the vibe of Dylan as this kind of desperate sojourner who hints at a worldlier wisdom behind his voice. Adding to the vocals is the simple guitar that’s doing battle against an intense organ part. But then in a song like “Calm Down”, the influence of Cat Stevens appears. He lets the emotion in his voice kind of build up the song and isn’t reliant on complex material. What makes Chisel seem less pretentious in his quest to sound like the greats is that he isn’t tackling these worldly topics and lyrically he is simplistic in his scope. The album feels like a love letter to a girl whom he has this rich and storied history with. There is a complete kind of emotional consistency without the album being a “story.”
Despite his influences, Chisel puts his unique touch on each song. He will absolutely never be his heroes. But he doesn’t need to because he does a stellar job of being himself and recognizing some of the finer nuisances of his idols. Part of that uniqueness is the light touches that he adds. He shines on acoustic wonders like “My Heart Would Be There”, which is Elvis Costello circa Almost Blue. Being born in Wisconsin helps as that Midwest life makes for a great kind of saddened drawl. But songs like “Longer Time At Sea”, which is a less evocative Springsteen doing an arena-quality hard rock song, and “Angel Of Mine”, which is a funkier soul and R&B song where he channels Dylan in a new light, let him be grandiose while maintaining that emotional balance. “Curious Thing” is wonderfully expressive and blues heavy and musically expansive and big without being overdone and produced.
But his real appeal lies in songs like “So Wrong For Me” and “Love Is Gone”, which present vocals that are lighter than air and almost non-existent. For these songs, the music is overpowering in this really kind of elegant way that feels like an emotional high point. “Tennessee” fades away so quickly you’d almost never know it was there and its sole purpose is the means for a beat for Chisel’s voice. But the closing track “Mockingbird” best represents Chisel’s synthesis. This darker song plays with religious myth and stories and parallels it with this complicated relationship. It’s seemingly less hopeful than the rest of the album and a much more desperate concept of love. But it’s still small and gentle musically and a great end where hope can actually exist.
Cory Chisel presents an album that is focused on a few key concepts. Despite the tendency for overwrought complexity he was faced with in distilling a small universe of influences, he takes the stars of the past and the inner workings of a small movement today and ends up a man with an emotionally dense voice and an inspired and austere approach.
Death Won’t Send a Letter