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Jeff Giddens  01/06/2010          
Hard Times
Album Review
Adam Carroll & Michael O'Connor - Hard Times * Posted by Jeff Giddens on No Depression and Sounds Country websites Re-Posted by Permission from Jeff Giddens 1. In case you have forgotten the power of an album, in this age of 30 second audio samples, digital only singles, and increasingly short attention spans, Adam Carroll and Michael O'Connor would like to refresh your memory. Hard Times, the new collaborative effort between the two, stands as a complete song cycle about one thing: Gulf Coast losers. Carroll has made a career of writing about wretched people who live off the beaten path, while O'Connor is better known for being a sideman for Slaid Cleaves and Susan Gibson, among others. This record finds them writing together on most of the songs, revealing the intricacies of those who live on the south coast of Texas and Louisiana. 2. "New Years Eve" finds Carroll sketching the figure of a hard luck musician "turnin' water into wine" over O'Connor's wailing slide guitar, before moving into "Bernadine". In this tale, a man with slightly better luck becomes a winner, despite being a self proclaimed "run down low rent Gulf Coast loser" and begs a woman to "make [his] hard times shine like gold". After losing all his money in the second verse, the whore becomes the saint Bernadine, and he promises to "cast his nets into the Galveston Bay" in exchange for a little help. O'Connor's raspy voice outlines the often simultaneous desire for pleasure and salvation. 3. "Billy Gibbons' Beard" circles around a drunk with a "bar tab twice as long" as the title who just wishes he had another shot at high school, when he passed up on an opportunity to touch the famed guitarist's facial hair. O'Connor' follows it up with "Throw a Nickel", another character study that traces the money trail from the poor into the hands of the law and the clergy. Carroll uses the title track to follow another down and out loser whose friends seem to be the only ones feeling the effects, until he buys a round for the crowd of one at a bar that turns out to be BYOB. 4. O'Connor's "Bottle Down" assures that "all the liquor in your veins", presumably as a result of the recession, "has got you in the devil's chains," as he pleads with a loved one to abstain, while Carroll adds a smoldering harmonica, before lightening the mood with the bouncy "Tired Of Myself", asking "can I be somebody new?". The pair cover each other on the next two tracks, with Carroll tackling "Sleepy Town", which follows two fallen stars who contribute a lot of action to their unsuspecting home. O'Connor takes on Carroll's "Highway Prayer", which previously appeared on his most recent record Old Town Rock and Roll. A stirring tribute to drifters, road warriors, and "those whose seeds in life are scattered", all beautifully underscored by producer Gabe Rhodes' harmonium. After a short harmonica interlude, they finish the record with the thesis statement, "Gulf Coast Losers", penned with Gordy Quist of the Band of Heathens. The song looks out from the viewpoint of a man who knows his place in the world, "choking down hot boxed wine" but perfectly content with his social standing who enters an ill-fated battle of the bands (against some out-of-towners named "Billy Gibbons' Beard"). 5. Carroll and O'Connor have crafted a complete record about a slice of life where there is little to do but laugh. Managing to realize the effects of an economic recession and combine it with a healthy dose of absurdity, they create a song cycle that entertains from beginning to end and reads like the best Larry Brown novel he never wrote. However simple life may seem in this part of the world, it is no less complex, and these two approach it with reverence. This is more than a collection of songs -- it is a true album, full of inside jokes, references, and carrying themes from song to song. Releasing on the first day of 2010, Hard Times sets a standard for craftsmanship that is going to be tough to top.

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