It’s a rare voice that’s expressive as the story it’s telling. The names that do come along adorn cover art that hangs in recording studios, halls of fame, bedrooms with bunk beds holding children just old enough to be drawn to the allure of the uncommon. It’s voices like Tom Waits or Mavis Staples, from which personality seeps like summer honey, that draw the listener back to the buzz of speakers, the quavering notes and musty musings whispering character into tales of Mississippi drinking fountains or a hooker writing a card on Christmas.
Rick Brantley’s is one of those voices.
Whether he’s recounting romance with “Claudette,” reflecting up on “Half Mile Hill,” or reviving “Try A Little Tenderness,” Brantley’s latest release, Lo-Fi, finds the artist at his most raw. The EP is bit of a breather for Brantley – though always a storyteller, the Georgia native’s previous releases have leaned decidedly more rock, replete with plaintive reaches for high notes and heavens. Instead, Brantley’s latest offering is much more intimate, dazzling not with high-watt lights but rather as a single candle’s tenacious glow. Lo-Fi lacks veneer – Brantley counts himself in at the beginning of “Waterloo,” sighs audibly at the start of “Claudette” – which makes it all the more compelling, allowing for the vocal and lyric to lead. His voice sounds a little worn with the stories he tells, a shuddering rasp perhaps compensating for the richness of the guitar notes that serve as his only accompaniment.
Much like with their presentation, Brantley seems more interested in engaging with complexities than shallow suppositions. “Hemingway had 90 proof, Custer had a thousand Sioux, the Red Sox traded off Babe Ruth,” he sings on “Waterloo.” “Napoleon had Waterloo, you got me, and baby I got you.” It’s an ode to opposites, perhaps too polar to ever truly co-exist. “If it were anyone else, we’d think it was funny,” he notes. Listening casually, “Waterloo” champions the strength of love, but there’s a current flowing beneath it, an uncertainty that grows stronger with repeated spins. Perhaps love is an infrangible force, or perhaps there are dynamics of even the strongest relationships that remove the ‘f’ from ‘forever,’ leaving a question mark in their wake.
Not that Brantley’s given up completely. “40 Days, 40 Nights” finds him embracing the maelstrom, while “Claudette” dances enticingly just out of reach. “You been messin’ with me and you don’t even know you been messin’ with me, I bet,” he laments on the latter. “You got to try a little tenderness,” he howls on his cover of the 1932 classic popularized by Otis Redding. Brantley provides the audio guide to his offerings in the form of a podcast, each episode devoted to a song on the EP. “There are few things that are epic in this world,” he says in his discussion of “40 Days, 40 Nights.” “To earn such a title the act must live on, long after the action has ended. We have epic wars, epic missions, epic struggles, the epic wrathful hand of a disenchanted god. And we have love. Love is epic.”
By Brantley’s definition, ‘epic’ isn’t a total mischaracterization of Lo-Fi – his expressive vocals don’t depart quickly from one’s mind post-listening, and lines like “money talks and liquor whispers, and I have listened to them both” make their way back into listeners’ consciousness days later for further mulling over. For those familiar with country, the EP may even feel familiar, “Tenderness” aside – “Half Mile Hill” was first released by David Nail, a Brantley, Tia Sillers, and Mark Selby co-write that appeared on Nail’s 2013 album Sound of A Million Dreams. In true Nail style, the record is vocally stunning; true to Brantley, it’s vocally gripping, an invitation to share in nostalgia and yearning. “Wishing you could fly like a cut string kite, tapping on the floor of heaven,” Brantley sings. “Is anybody listening?”
Take a listen below and grab Lo-Fi on iTunes.