Saturday, September 23, 2023

Nick Justice: “Stranger In My Town” (2023) CD Review

Nick Justice is a singer and songwriter who had partnered with Feter Martin Homer to create The SideMen. They put out a self-titled album in July of 2022, and then each went back to solo careers just a few months later. Nick Justice’s new album, Stranger In My Town, features mostly original material, and the two tracks that he didn’t write were written by members of his supporting band. That band is made up of Richard Stekol on electric guitar, acoustic guitar and backing vocals; Mai Leisz on bass; Greg Leisz on pedal steel, dobro and mandolin; and Joel Rafael on acoustic guitar, harmonica and backing vocals. Joel Rafael also produced the album.

Nick Justice opens this album with its title track, “Stranger In My Town.” While there is something of a cheerful vibe to the music, this song tells a rather sad tale of a person becoming a stranger in his own town. This early line is particularly striking: “Mama prayed every night that I wouldn’t come around.” That is harsh, and it is delivered with a sort of acceptance, which makes it all the more heartbreaking. But then we learn a little about his youth, and start to understand: “I grew up the hard way, couldn’t count on any luck/Daddy’s drunken right hand, well, it taught me how to duck.” But the song will speak to anyone who doesn’t feel at home in those familiar places. That’s followed by “Let The Wind Blow,” which has a more of a country vibe as it starts, with that nice, gentle work on pedal steel. Then when the vocals come in, the lyrics take focus, and here Nick Justice sings of leaving troubles to the past, or at least attempting to do so. From the song’s first line, I am hooked. That line is, “Tomorrow’s not promised, yesterday has passed.” These lines also stand out to me: “The older we get, the nearer the end/I knew you, but didn’t know you/But I called you my friend/Let it go, let it go/Leave your troubles behind and let the wind blow.” But of course, even the good things are eventually let go. Nick gives an earnest vocal performance on this sadly beautiful song.

There is a bit of sadness to “The Night My Heart Caught Fire” too, which seems to express regret in its first line, “Didn’t know how good I had it ‘til you walked away.” And check out these lines: “Remember when we were younger our lives were so carefree/Filled with so much promise, we let it all be.” As I get older, lines like those are more likely to grab me, I suppose, and his delivery rings true. This song also features some good work on pedal steel. Nick then delivers some nice stuff on harmonica at the beginning of “Don’t You Know.” I love that his voice often seems to live right at the edge. It is a compelling characteristic of his delivery. There is experience in that voice, and pain and wisdom. “Don’t you know when you’re gone you never came/And once you leave, you’ll never be the same/Come in from the shadows, hide from the rain/Don’t you know?” That’s followed by “Don’t Walk Away,” a lighter and livelier number, with a bluesy aspect and featuring some great stuff on guitar. “Promised you that I’d be true/Is there more that I can do?/Don’t you walk away, don’t you walk away.”

I’m not afraid to look backwards/And I know when I’ve gone too far/We’re just living in hard times.” I suppose those lines from “Hard Times” can be true of any time, at least for some folks, but they seem particularly apt these days. And I love the ache in his voice. It is the voice of someone who wants to make things right, and is worried he just won’t be able to. But he is going to try, and isn’t that what we all should do. This is another pretty and moving song, at times reminding me of something Greg Brown might do. “Hard Times” is followed by “Thanks For The Smiles,” one of the album’s two tracks not written by Nick Justice. This one was written by Joel Rafael, who included it on his 2015 album Baladista. There is a sweet vibe to this song, which I love. “Thanks for the memories, thanks for the smiles/Every time I think about you, it carries me a million miles/Rolling down this old road until my day is done/Tomorrow I will roll again with the morning sun.” Joel Rafael’s harmonica work on this version is interesting as it begins, like steady steps at first before going into more of what we expect from that instrument. What’s also interesting about that is that it is different from what he played on his original rendition. There is some more nice harmonica work at the song’s conclusion.

“Save Somebody” has a fun, bright vibe with a gospel bent. Lisa Sanders and Karen “Brown Sugar” Hayes join Richard Stekol on backing vocals, providing some wonderful work and adding a lot to the song’s flavor. That’s followed by “Dream #9.” The presence of mandolin helps give this one a light feel, though the lyrics are in some contrast to that sound, addressing those who are struggling. “The blank faces staring back at me/Tell me hope’s a long time gone/The promise of another dream/Was just another con.” The album concludes with “America Walking By,” which was written by Richard Stekol, who released his own version in 2010 on Bygones. This is another beautifully sad number. “Bundle up and dry your eyes, there’ll be teardrops left to cry/Papa, hold your head up high/There goes America walking by, there goes America walking by.”

CD Track List

  1. Stranger In My Town
  2. Let The Wind Blow
  3. The Night My Heart Caught Fire
  4. Don’t You Know
  5. Don’t Walk Away
  6. Hard Times
  7. Thanks For The Smiles
  8. Save Somebody
  9. Dream #9
  10. America Walking By

Stranger In My Town was released on July 28, 2023.

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