By Hal Horowitz
A Cat in the Rain encourages listeners to absorb Felker’s erudite, truthful yet unpretentious writing as they roll along with melodies that entice you back for another spin.
Few would disagree with Turnpike Troubadours’ decision to take some time off in 2019. After all, the sextet had been relentlessly touring and releasing albums since their debut in 2005. Additionally, Evan Felker’s issues with alcohol needed the attention that being on the road doesn’t provide.
But, with their last release arriving in 2017, could they relight the rocking fuse that made them arena headliners before they called the sabbatical?
The answer is here. Any sense of rust that might have accumulated over the past four years is quickly dismissed with A Cat in the Rain. The introduction feels tentative, opening with some gradually fading in instrumentation.
It leads into the dusky, swampy vibe of ‘Mean Old Sun’, the fiddle and banjo underlying Felker’s lyrics of an unrepentant gambler, singing; “That mean old sun better rise up soon / if it’s ever gonna set on me”. It’s an appropriate way to herald the return of a band that sounds as potent as when they left.
The laid-back groove on much of the album directs attention to Felker’s lyrics. That doesn’t distract from the often-loping melodies like ‘The Rut’ though, which creeps along to an atmospheric and meditative guitar as Felker tells the tale of the protagonist, perhaps him, becoming alcohol free; “I don’t miss the taste of liquor or anything about it”.
The band themselves lock together, backing Felker’s material with muscular but never overcooked playing. Steel musician Hank Early’s work generally stays in the background, supporting the songs with just the right amount of twang that gives them their rootsy, Red Dirt vibe. A few covers (The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ ‘Black Sky’ and ‘Won’t You Give Me One More Chance’ in Jerry Jeff Walker’s version) provide insight into the band’s influences.
Echoes of early Bob Dylan and Harvest era-Neil Young reverberate on the folksy latter selection, especially when the lonesome harmonica meshes with the pedal steel and fiddle on a regretful tune that has the singer asking his partner to “forget about the bad we had / I don’t believe we’re through / you’re the only thing I have to hold onto”. It’s touching and truthful.
The title track explores staying strong in the face of adversity with, once again, lots of context to sift through. But that’s part of the album’s charm, encouraging the listener to absorb Felker’s erudite, truthful yet unpretentious writing as they roll along with melodies that entice you back for another spin.
We’ve missed him and his band. It’s great to have them back navigating the turnpikes like the troubadours they are.