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    Louisville singer and songwriter John Woosley this year released a solo EP, his first recorded work since he fronted the alt-country band Hell's Half Acre more than a decade ago. Despite the long hiatus, the six finely crafted songs on "Kitchenette Sessions" reflect the lyrical finesse and textured vocals on display in 2004's "Under a Whiskey Moon," an album that drew rave reviews and comparisons to everyone from Drive-By Truckers to Elvis Costello. The intervening years between that band's dissolve and the new solo project have been difficult ones for Woosley, who has battled alcoholism and relapses. But over two years of sobriety have put him on a more positive path – one that he hopes will make it possible to pursue new music.

    "When you're an alcoholic of the hopeless variety -- the kind of drinking that I did, saying 'if I keep drinking, I'll die' is not hyperbole. It's just the situation." You could say that the songs on this EP came out of that life and death struggle, but through it all, the insistence of Woosley's friend and producer, Steve McCabe, is what kept them alive. During the upswings, they worked on the music together, but even when things would go south for a while, Woosley credits McCabe with continuing to tinker and arrange the songs in the studio. "I'm just savvy enough to know that I need to surround myself with great musicians in order to pull one over on people," says Woosley with a laugh. "That's Steve McCabe you're hearing." The virtuosic McCabe plays nearly every instrument on the album other than acoustic guitar, including electric guitars, percussion, and keyboards. So the silver lining to the protracted birthing of "Kitchenette Sessions" is that each song emerged meticulously arranged, diverse in mood and style, original in concept and delivery.

    It's no surprise that the songs here plumb the depths of the sad, the struggling, and the broken – those who don't just wrestle their demons daily, but sometimes deny them, interrogate them, and talk their ear off. They are enlivened by Woosley's knack for the telling detail (the cotton shoes of the dayroom patients in "VA Hospital Blues"), an ear for rhyme, and a sense of play with words that calls to mind the writing of Jason Isbell, who is no stranger to sad songs.

    In the opener, the protagonist of "VA Hospital" casts a weary but sympathetic eye on the revolving door of struggling vets who come in and out of the system and "don't recover so much as they snooze." Violin (Sarah Hill) and mandolin (Jerry Kimbrough) lend a country vibe that carries through to "Closer," a gentle acoustic guitar rambler that accompanies a litany of the slings and arrows of self-doubt and recrimination that penetrate an otherwise idyllic day.

    The album switches gears from alt-country to the Eleanor Rigby-esque "Those Who Care." The vocals are weathered and wistful, calling on the listener to empathize with those routinely dismissed by the self-righteous. By the time we hit "Preoccupied" anything straight-ahead and predictable has been kicked to the curb. It begins like a romantic piano ballad but breaks into jangly rhythms as if all that has gone wrong is suddenly forced into the narrator's focus. A soaring electric guitar solo falls back into a confusion of thoughts and sounds, blurring out into a trippy little fall down the rabbit hole of "Prelude." This is one of Woosley's favorite elements. "Songs don't really necessarily, properly end, they just fade into this weird sonic space that provides a foundation for where the next song comes from."

    This strangeness continues with the best song on the album, "Here Today," a dark internal monologue running along a sliding, pulsing bass line, punctuated by hand claps and the haunting blare of a keyboard that resembles the far-off, lonely sound of trains. It conjures a sonically rich and moody landscape that perfectly captures the brooding thoughts of the protagonist:

    "I'd hold your hand but you know ghosts are hold to hold/
    (just forget about it, just forget about it)
    Here today like a ship without a sail/
    I'm broke and beat but fighting tooth and nail/
    I wrote a letter because I flat refuse to fail"

    I find myself coming back to this song again and again, partly for the mesmerizing rhythm, partly to puzzle out the baroque elements that make it all work. But it does work, and the strength of the album is in the mystery of details woven together by Woosley and McCabe. "Kitchenette Sessions" is available on CD Baby.

    Watch "Here Today" on Youtube:


    Selena Frye's picture

    About Selena Frye

    I'm a writer and editor living in Louisville since 1996. I'm originally from the Blue Ridge of Virginia.

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