REVIEW: Chuck Ragan – ‘Till Midnight’

Chuck Ragan

Artist: Chuck Ragan
Album: Till Midnight
Label: Side One Dummy
Genre: Folk-punk / Americana

There are two kinds of vocalists in this world, singers and storytellers. A singer could sing the phonebook and make it sound beautiful, while a storyteller could sing the phonebook and make it sound meaningful. The singer has learned a craft, the storyteller is their craft. Chuck Ragan is a storyteller. A storyteller in possession of the kind of gravel throated, weathered voice that makes his every uttered syllable seem unbelievably important. When that voice is coupled with Ragan’s assured gift of prose and established song writing nous, it creates a triple threat of elements that add up to a truly unique listening experience.

On Till Midnight, Ragan’s fifth solo full-length, each of these elements has been blended together with impeccable technique and a whole lot of love, to create a warm and inviting record that leaves you captivated for the duration of each of its 10 tracks. Captured with a rustic production that ensures the album sounds and feels more like a performance in an intimate, yet rowdy mid-western bar, Till Midnight plays out more like a much-loved old film than merely a record, taking the listener on an enchanting ride through the life and times of a road-hardened punk rock veteran, still brave enough to wear his heart on his plaid sleeves.

Opening with the superb “Something May Catch Fire,” Ragan and his long-time backing band The Camaraderie, ensure that Till Midnight wastes no time gathering your attention, with a brief instrumental section inviting you into the cozy world the record inhabits, before making way for Ragan’s distinctive raspy voice and old-school lyricism to weave its captivating magic. Featuring arguably Ragan’s finest chorus to date, it is a track that leaves you with no choice but to sit back, sing along and settle in for the ride. “Something May Catch Fire” is followed by the resonator driven “Vagabond,” a track that takes the form of part lament/part celebration of the life he has chosen to lead. “Vagabond” is an early highlight that displays not only the heartfelt delivery of Ragan as he sings, “And still I find myself in some town / pulling the pillars of tradition down / waking up on the wrong side of fantasy / waking up on the wrong side of you and me,” but also the impressive musical abilities of The Camaraderie, whose carefully constructed contributions help to underline the power and emotionality of the story being told.

The album’s lead single, “Non-Typical,” is next and from the moment Ragan sings the impassioned opening lines of “Unequivocal, my heart just nearly stopped” over a simple beat, it becomes apparent that he could not have chosen a more fitting moniker for the track. An overwhelmingly powerful song that builds from this minimalist beginning into a rollicking chorus, before dropping into a good-old bit of ‘call and response’ action that simply begs to be shouted out loud by audiences around the globe. It is this track perhaps more than any other on the record that exemplifies the unique characteristics of Ragan’s ‘lived-in’ voice with the rasp and crackle that has become his trademark coming on thick and fast as the track builds into a stunning crescendo. As the song ends amidst Ragan’s passionate pleas of “We can always build a world better than this,” you cannot help but raise a glass in approval.

This opening trio of gems is followed by a trio of tracks of exquisite modern Americana in the form of “Rewed,” “Bedroll Lullaby” and “Gave My Heart Out,” each of which utilizes the likes of harmonica, steel-guitar, banjo, glockenspiel and THAT VOICE to communicate feelings of love; for life, for the road and even for loss. These three tracks, much like the album as a whole, reveal Ragan’s connection to the sounds of his southern upbringing, with the riotous outro of the latter track providing the perfect segue into the more subdued “Wake With You.” A more traditional ‘three chords and the truth’ kind of offering, “Wake With You” features Ragan at his most romantic, as he reflects on the beauty of surrendering one’s heart fully to the trust of another, while acknowledging that by doing so the other half risks being hurt by his destructive tendencies. As Ragan reflects, “I’ll do my damnedest to make mistakes but once,” you cannot help but be moved by his honesty.

“You And I Alone” picks up the pace again, with The Camaraderie providing a swashbuckling rhythm for Ragan to shout sweet everythings over the top of, as together they craft a song about the ongoing battle with the tyranny of distance that plagues relationships of the men who choose to live a life on the road. “You And I Alone” is followed by three of the finest minutes of Ragan’s solo career in the form of the album’s penultimate track, the thunderous “Whistleblowers Song.” A soulful dissertation on the omnipresent battle between love and hate present deep within all of us, “Whistleblowers Song” is a quintessential example of Ragan’s unique gift as a songwriter, combining the rawness and honesty of his revered work fronting Hot Water Music, with the more restrained introspection of his previous solo material. The track starts out with an intro that would not sound out of place on an old blues record before exploding to life and transforming into a gloriously dishevelled mid-tempo stomper that should go down a treat in a live setting.

Till Midnight is brought to a close with the spacious power ballad “For All We Care,” an incredibly accomplished track that showcases all that is great about the union of Ragan, The Camaraderie, and producer (and Blind Melon/AWOLNATION member) Christopher Thorn. “For All We Care” is a fittingly cinematic love song to finish off a record that seems destined to become a revered piece of modern Americana.

As organic sounding as any record I’ve heard so far this year, Till Midnight has been produced with genuine soul. You can hear and feel the blood, sweat and tears of everyone involved, from Ragan, to the Camaraderie, to the extensive list of guest musicians (including Rami Jaffee of the Wallflowers/Foo Fighters, Ben Nichols of Lucero, Dave House, Jenny O, Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass of Drag The River) in every note. The power of the record lies in the authenticity and honesty of these performances and in the depth of the stories being told. In the words of Ragan himself, “When you’re living your life by wearing your heart on your sleeve, there’s not a lot to hide behind.”

This is not an album to simply listen to, but rather it’s an album to get lost in, so on March 25, pick up a copy, turn it up loud, sit back and lose yourself, Till Midnight.

SCORE: 9/10
Review written by: Brenton Harris

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  • Max Havenith

    Thank you for this beautiful review. My copy of the vinyl record will not arrive before next week, but I’m listening to, nay, ENJOYING, the album right now. Thx, AutoRip. ;-)