Skyline Drive: Topanga Ranch Motel
The genre known simply as Americana is a wide and wondrous place. Home to country, rock, blues, and occasional jazz flourishes, Americana is the land of broken hearts, drunkards, lovers, storytellers and time wasters. The new release from Skyline Drive, headed by Derek Thomas Stovall, is everything you could come to expect from the dusty memoirs of an American songwriter. The album, Topanga Ranch Motel, ebbs and flows with a bittersweet carefulness and a sorrowful undercurrent that reaches back into the hopeful afterthoughts of youth for inspiration.
The record opener, “The Switch”, sinks us straight into the self imposed sea of longing for a recently lost love. Sparse and comfortable, this song lifts Stovall’s gentle voice ever so slightly above a powerful guitar line. Near the midpoint a violin joins in the mix, providing a melancholy accent to this rather uplifting song. More about the triumph over loss than its permanence, this track makes for a gorgeous opening and sets the mood just right.
Track three “The Bartering Line”, is a more traditional country ballad, complete with drums, organ, slide guitar, harmonica, and female backing vocals.This track sheds a little light on what it takes to keep a relationship healthy and balanced, encouraging humility as a tool to keep loneliness at bay. The instrumentation on this track shows off the compositional skills of Mr. Stovall, as everything meshes very well in a laid back mix. Compared to a lot of modern country whose vocals sound too computerized and instrumentation too lush to be real, this song is what country music should and could be.
“Damaged” is another great track, resting its laurels in the second half of the album. This song recalls the Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp in its tone, mixing nostalgia with heartache. The result is easily a new classic American folk/country song that swells with pianos, slide guitar, thick drums, and some of the most powerful vocals found on this album.
The album closer, “Yellowman’s Cliff”, is the most intensely sorrowful tune on the album. Another sparse track, this one features a guitar and piano duet (each solemn and powerful in their own right) beneath Stovall’s fragile memories of his first love. This one is a sure tearjerker, albeit slightly cheesy in the lyric department. Yet Stovall makes his best effort to keep it grounded with his gravelly voice doing most of the heavy lifting.
Many of the songs on this record will sound familiar, as most songs in the Americana genre tend to. While there is essentially nothing new going on here, I felt it was a fairly well thought out album of songs that capture a time long since past. Surely if nothing else, Topanga Ranch Motel speaks more honestly than many popular country albums, and more humbly than a lot of southern rock ever could.
MP3: Skyline Drive “Damaged”