By Harris Wheless
October 31, 2019
For some, the phrase “alternative country” signifies a rough hewn lo-fi sound dominated by fast guitar breaks and high and lonesome country leanings. On their full-length debut, Old Fire, Charlotte alt-country rockers The Wilt expand on that rootsy underpinning with a melancholy lyricism and spare, polished arrangements which, despite the band’s six-person lineup, don’t sound cluttered.
Thematically, Old Fire doesn’t go far astray from your standard set of road songs, odes to booze and heartache, and other country weepers that dwell on the could-bes and coulda beens. But lead vocalist and songwriter Sage Greer is able to pull it all off with a rare mix of passion and restraint. On songs like “Here You Come” and “Should’ve Held On,” Greer and fellow vocalist Brooke Vestrand match the seamless harmonies and palpable anguish of a Parsons-Harris duet. And elsewhere, the collection’s warm, resonant guitar tones envelop the listener and invite them into the record’s contemplative state of mind.
From the get-go, the listener is mired in a world of understated poetic distance, perfectly typified by the opening lyrics to the lead-off track, “Can’t Feel Nothin’,” where the narrator can be heard wanting to “cross my fingers ‘till the blood runs down.” On many of the album’s slow and mid-tempo rockers, ebullient keyboard bridges and drum fills act as a counterbalance to the ringing chorus of guitars. And, like the pedal steel-inflected slow country burners of the genre’s heyday, the keyboard’s drone adds an immersive, ambient quality to the mix. Often, each instrument is somewhat isolated, producing a lush, clean sound. The credit for this goes to producer Leonardo Solis, of the husband-wife experimental pop duo SOLIS, whose crisp, economical production imbues the songs with a keen pop sensibility. This, along with the band’s tight performance, makes for a highly cohesive and unified set.
Looking at the world through the bottom of a glass, or through the rear view mirror, The Wilt mine much of the same territory as their alt-country predecessors and then some. Whether it’s from the vantage point of a barstool philosopher or a drifter with his thumb in the breeze, subtlety and character are the name of the game. This is biting country rock with the edges sanded down. The music’s lyrical desperation grows on you, eventually hitting you right in the stomach. On the penultimate song and title track, the album reaches its logical conclusion with a final exercise in self-reflection. Over a shuffling drumbeat and jangly acoustic guitar, Greer sings “There’s a new fire rising in my soul/ There’s an old fire telling me to go/ ‘Cause if you never try you never know.”
The final song finds Greer more settled, more at peace with the world than he was before. “Bristol Sign” takes us back to his hometown, the birthplace of country music, for another glance back at all that he’s left behind. With a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, he conjures a back porch serenade of the good times, the friends, and the railroad tracks that never seem to run out. It’s a fitting end to the album. Just one man and his guitar— singing till the sun comes up, or the record stops spinning.