Chuck Ragan is among the more authentic of singer-songwriters coming from a long-established punk-rock background. Till Midnight’s bluegrass, folk, and Americana undertones are particularly fitting given Ragan’s passion for the simple life, which resonates on the record. It’s ultimately a collection of campfire tunes accentuated by strings and pedal steel guitars, but the songs are powered, first and foremost, by Ragan’s soulful presence.
The 39-year-old shows his age on Till Midnight, which is more indicative of a lifelong involvement in music than of any decline in ability. His voice is strained and rough, but even Hot Water Music’s earliest material made gruffness a trademark. Till Midnight — lacking the electric dynamics and collaborative songwriting of his seminal Florida punk-rock band — leaves Ragan fairly exposed. Like a folk-oriented alternative to Tom Waits, the recurring rasp in his singing is sometimes painfully bare.
Chuck Ragan is nonetheless a talented singer-songwriter drawing from his quieter existence. “Wake With You” is a delicate vow to his significant other, complete with light acoustic guitar plucking and lines like, “I do my damnedest to make mistakes but once.” A rollicking beat springs from Ragan’s low preaching in “Whistleblowers Song,” although the song fails to offer an imaginative take on global disarray. Following 2011’s Covering Ground, Till Midnight reiterates some of its predecessor’s themes as well; on “Something May Catch Fire” and “Vagabond,” Ragan reflects upon former, rigorous touring schedules that distanced him from his loved one. In turn, the album offers an intriguing perspective on Ragan’s remote, fisherman lifestyle and Hot Water Music’s lengthy hiatus.
Till Midnight is at its best when Ragan’s role is emphasized. His backing band comprises nearly a dozen musicians collectively dubbed The Camaraderie, but they merely contribute standard folk elements and indiscernible guest vocal appearances. The weaving pedal steel and alt-country rhythms of “For All We Care” are essential, but a handful of Till Midnight’s 10 tracks might have been equally strong, if not stronger, as solo acoustic numbers.
Considering Chuck Ragan’s transition from punk rock powerhouse frontman to humble family man, his latest effort makes sense. What hasn’t changed is Ragan’s dedication to honest songwriting, regardless of genre, setting, or age.
Till Midnight is available now, via SideOneDummy Records.
Review by Anthony Glaser