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Music Review - `Existential Frontiers` by White Owl Red (jh)

White Owl Red -  Existential Frontiers  (click on image to watch video)

1 March 2019 

 

Existential Frontiers is the third studio album by White Owl Red, a San Francisco-based alt-country band fronted by singer/songwriter J. Josef McManus. His debut record, 2014’s American Ash landed on the Americana Music Association Charts (AMA) and held a spot there for fourteen weeks. His second album, 2017’s Naked and Falling Charted on the AMA top 100, FAR Chart top 10 and ranked in the top 100 albums of 2017 by Alternate Root. This is clearly a band on the rise and Existential Frontiers will likely raise their trajectory.

Joining McManus are drummer Kyle Caprista (Chuck Prophet, Megan Slankard) and guitarist Gawain Mathews (Mickey Hart, Ben Lee). McManus has one of those classic twang voices with long drawn out words like Hayes Carll or Ray Wylie Hubbard. At times you’d swear he was from Texas, not San Francisco. Yet, there’s a West Coast feel to the music too, hearkening back at times to classic country rock sounds of the Byrds and Burritos. Some hear elements of the Dead but perhaps the best comparison is the San Francisco band from the ‘90s, American Music Club. Like that band, White Owl Red uses small dashes of psychedelia, as if to remind us that they are inherently San Francisco at heart.

The opening title track, already released as a single and YouTube video, is a swinging country rocker. It’s an arousing beginning that quickly yields to the mid-tempo, brooding “Breaking Away.” McManus displays his true gift for melody in “Everything But Crying” and the lilting “Good Morning Moonshine.” The tongue-in-cheek “I’m a Saint” reveals a punk country style that segues to the acoustic folk-like “Love Her Still.”

“More, More, More” is a haunting up-tempo tune, propelled by McManus’s drawn-out phrasing and polyrhythms from Caprista. Again, in keeping with the pattern, the tempo slows for the languorous, spacey “See Through Me” and picks up only slightly for the folk-like “Set Me Free” that has a nice dobro break from Mathews. This sets us up for perhaps the strongest track, the churning rock anthem “Union Fight Song.” McManus speaks for the government workers summoning Joe Hill and John Henry as he sings “We’re gonna show you with a red, white and blue union can do.”

Piano chords introduce the brooding “Hand-Me-Down Girl” that leads into the bouncy, singalong “Star-crossed Lover.” “Take a Good Look” is another rapid tempo twangy tune bordering on punk country before closing with the harmonica-infused Dylanesque “Wishing You Well.”

Despite the modest success of their first two albums, White Owl Red remains lightly under the radar. McManus and his band are as good as any on today’s Americana scene. There are several tunes that are ideal for airplay here so perhaps this will rightly elevate their status. McManus is a better songwriter than most. With the talents of his bandmates, they deliver a nice mix of tunes shifting between alt-country to folk to some terrific rocking moments.

 

Jim Hynes

 

 

Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.

 

 


 

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