Certain images he goes back to in multiple songs, like bare feet ("Nothing Like You," "Rubber Bullets, "Sam's Saloon"), yellow rose ("Nothing Like You," "Damaged"), smoke ("Nothing Like You," "Rubber Bullets," "Lemon Tree," "Damaged"), and fog ("Bartering Lines, "Lemon Tree"). One image or theme he returns to often on this album is the idea of being lost. In "Lemon Tree" he sings, "I lost you in the fog." In "Damaged": "I lost myself in you." In "The Captain": "You're lost at sea." And in "Yellowman's Cliff" he sings, "lost in the fire."
Several of the songs on Topanga Ranch Motel are about relationships. Most of them seem to be over, for one reason or another. In "Damaged," he sings, "Those six months were the best I've ever known." And in "Lovebirds," a beautifully sad song, he sings, "Standing in the pouring rain/Crying, screaming out your name/You sent a whisper to the back of my brain/Said to cherish those times and get on with my life again." That song kind of tears me apart.
Adding to the emotional power of these songs is the presence of female vocals (by the wonderful Leslie Stevens). When you have both genders singing about the end of a relationship, it's like they're closer together in being farther apart. There is something so wonderfully sad in that, because there is that feeling that whatever problem they have could be easily solved, but won't be. They're experiencing the same thing, but separately. And in listening to them, it's easy for us to feel we're experiencing it too. Derek Thomas understands that and makes great use of female vocals on this record. These are songs that pull us in and affect us emotionally.
Topanga Ranch Motel opens with "The Switch," a sweet late-night folk love song. It's in the past tense, a looking back at a relationship, so of course there is a certain sadness to it. He sings, "Tried to get it right for you/Well, isn't that what every man is supposed to do?" His voice has that great tired, worn quality, which fits so well with this song. "I was glad to be a fool for you/Occasionally lose my cool for you." This is one of my favorites from this disc.
"Nothing Like You"
"Nothing Like You" is a country tune, and a different sort of love song. This one is a more upbeat, happy kind of tune, in which Derek Thomas sings, "Nothing on my mind but getting with you/There's nothing like you, there's nothing like you." I really like the harmonica part. And there is some wonderful work by Erik Kristiansen on pedal steel guitar. This would be a good song to put on a mix for a road trip with your loved one.
"Rubber Bullets" is a wonderful, slow country tune, another one about a relationship. He sings, "And got a ticket on my car/She ripped it up and smiled at me/And said this is how it starts/It starts with a bang/And it ends with a kiss." I love that in one line is mentioned the beginning and end. But the line I really like is, "When the real truth is you were the only thing worth getting used to." Wow, that is a wonderful line.
I love the female backing vocals that come in on the chorus, adding another emotional layer to this song. The first time, she comes in softly only for a line or two ("until it hits you in the heart"), and the next time her voice is more present, stronger, for the entire chorus. Almost like his recollection becomes more vivid, and brings her back, recreates her.
There are female backing vocals on chorus to "Damaged" too, about a relationship that is over. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "Those six months were the best I've ever known/Ain't asking for 'em back/Just thought I'd let you know/I've been damaged." How are those for some good lyrics? With her singing, "I've been damaged" and "I lost myself in you," it's like they've both come out of the relationship in the same state, which is interesting. "Damaged" is a wonderful song, a song of regret.
"Yellowman's Cliff" is a looking back at his first childhood love, when he was twelve, "And she looked like heaven/Going on eleven." The portrait is of a small town, a dirt road, a lighthouse. He describes their first kiss on the lighthouse steps: "I got nervous and I bit her lip/But I quickly got the hang of it." Perfect, right? It's a sweet song of young, innocent love. But then more than halfway through the song, disaster strikes, the song turns, surprises you. He sings of "The smell of a fire" (the second song to use that image; it's also in "Sam's Saloon").
CD Track List
- The Switch
- Nothing Like You
- Bartering Line
- Rubber Bullets
- Lemon Tree
- The Captain
- Sam's Saloon
- Yellowman's Cliff
The musicians appearing on this album are Derek Thomas on guitar, harmonica and vocals; Erik Kristiansen on pedal steel guitar; Leslie Stevens on vocals; Mike Derricate on electric bass and vocals; David Brouillette on upright bass; Carl Byron on keys; Jeff Young on keys and organ; Jerry Zacarias on drums; and Michael Guglielmo on drums and percussion.
Topanga Ranch Motel is scheduled to be released on October 16, 2012. By the way - and I know this isn't important - but I really like the look of the CD itself. There is something truly appealing about the yellow design on the green disc. Again, I know that has nothing to do with the music, but there you have it.