Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Secret Emchy Society: “The Chaser” (2020) CD Review

Secret Emchy Society is a country band that mixes some delicious classic sounds with a style and passion that is full of fire and joy, delivered with a dash of humor. Led by vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter Cindy M. Emch, this Oakland-based group creates music that has a loose and honest feel. Their new album, The Chaser, features all original material written by Cindy M. Emch, and the music is largely driven by her voice, a voice that won’t take any crap though she’s been through some, a voice that wears some serious boots. The group is made up of Tolan McNeil on lead guitar and backing vocals, Mya Byrne on slide guitar and mandolin, Michele Kappel on drums, Hans Winold on upright bass and harmonica, and Carolyn Mark on backing vocals.

The disc gets off to a great start with “Everything Was Fine,” a lively country tune, sounding like something that would be played at that mythic roadside bar where angels and demons dance and drink together. This song takes place in California, with the backdrop of fire. I know it seems like a hundred years ago at this point, but in 2018 and 2019 California was on fire. Remember that? Before the pandemic, before that racist narcissist Donald Trump had peaceful protesters tear-gassed so he could pose with a bible held upside down, before this foul year of 2020 began, things were pretty bad. “We’re all getting out, but there’s nowhere to go/Running out of water, our reserves are getting low.” One thing I love about this song is that idea of acting like things are fine when they certainly are not. But what this song is really about is being on the road, and the loneliness and the troubles that come along with that, with lines like “A flat tire in Redding and it could’ve been worse/The car just keeps on running, it’s a blessing, it’s a curse.” The song also mentions North Hollywood, where I’ve made my home for a while, and where I’ve been stuck since the beginning of the pandemic. “Everything Was Fine” is followed by “Howlin’ Sober At The Moon,” the first line of which made me laugh out loud: “I’m a little intense, I’ll give you that.” Yet, there is something rather sweet about this song. Perhaps it’s partly due to the work on mandolin, but also to lines like “You can put your hand in mine” and “I hope I see you soon.” Then “Hell Is A Hard Place” comes on strong, the band driving stakes into the ground to mark its territory. And check out these opening lines: “Hell is a hard place to take a man/Just to prove a point/You’re sitting there with my dreams in your hands.”

As “The Good Dog” starts, it has a beautifully lonely sound, like from out in some wasteland. Then when it kicks in, it develops a friendlier, warmer feel. Here Cindy Emch sounds sweet at moments. “It’s time to shed the pain and sleep again/Sleep again, sleep again.” But probably the line I love most is “Yelling at children and dogs alike,” which strikes me as funny. Maybe something is wrong with me. That’s followed by “Whiskey Fightin’ Terri,” a fun song in which alcohol plays a prominent role. “When the whiskey comes out, it’s a given sin/Trouble is coming with a lopsided grin.” The album’s title track, “The Chaser,” begins with some gentle strumming and soon becomes a cool country number, a slow waltz, a drinking song of a different sort, equating herself with that second drink. And it ends up being an odd and wonderful love song, one of my personal favorites. “Now I’m walking out in Brooklyn with an old glass of wine/It’s three in the morning, but I always got time/When I find you and we’re waltzing under old neon signs/Intoxicated by the glint in our eyes.” Am I crazy, or does Cindy’s delivery on this song at times remind you of Leonard Cohen? I hear it particularly on the line “That’s why you still love me.” There is a pretty instrumental section in the second half of this track.

“Leavin’ Powell River” is another lively country number with energy and some interesting touches. “The ferry’s got life stories and lessons to tell/We’re leaving Powell River and we’re driving straight to hell.” Yes, I’m thinking this might be a good choice for a road trip mix CD, with lines like “Will it take three thousand miles for you to miss me again.” That’s followed by “Git ‘Er Done.” I have to say I really don’t like the expression “git ‘er done,” but this is an enjoyable song. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “It always seems over before it’s begun/Home wants the road and the road steals all the fun.” This track too features a good instrumental section in the middle. Then in “I Get Drunk,” Cindy Emch sings “Well, I get drunk on Irish whisky/And I get drunk on seeing you/I get drunk on Tennessee bourbon/But that don’t stop me loving you.” Yes, it’s a drinking song and a love song. Hurrah for that! There are moments when the guitar has a 1960s sound.

Near the beginning of “Grackle,” we get this line: “Once I had a boy whose life just couldn’t start.” That line stood out for me the first time I listened to this album. This song becomes a strange sort of duet, as on these lines of violence: “Well, I heard she hit you/I heard you hit her back.” This is another really good line: “Sometimes the kindest gestures leave the hardest scars.” By the way, I had to look up the word “grackle.” It is a kind of bird. Secret Emchy Society wraps up the album with “Dance Like The World Is Ending,” which is certainly my favorite song title of the album. For four years now, it has seemed like the world is ending, and some people even claim to look forward to its destruction (that’s how screwed up things are these days). Anyway, this song is a sweeter, sadder, more romantic number, with a certain beauty, and is another of my favorite tracks. It features some nice work on mandolin and harmonica. Toward the end, Cindy sings “Telling stories of guns and lakes/And bad ideas.” I love the addition of “And bad ideas,” I love when a line goes in a direction you hadn’t expected, but which works so well. This song feels like the perfect conclusion to an excellent album.

CD Track List
  1. Everything Was Fine
  2. Howlin’ Sober At The Moon
  3. Hell Is A Hard Place
  4. The Good Dog
  5. Whiskey Fightin’ Terri
  6. The Chaser
  7. Leavin’ Powell River
  8. Git ‘Er Done
  9. I Get Drunk
  10. Grackle
  11. Dance Like The World Is Ending
The Chaser was released on May 15, 2020.

You can listen to it here.

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