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Music Review: Sam Llanas – 4 A.M. (The Way Home)

“It’s four in the morning, the hour of truth.” These lines sung by Sam Llanas in “The Only One” pretty much summarize the themes of the new solo effort from the former lead singer and guitarist for the BoDeans. One need not stay up that late to get into the spirit of this collection, but its songs are certainly best served when listeners are winding down from whatever they were doing before calling it a night.

Even without the presence of Llanas’s longtime partner, Kurt Neumann, the 11 songs on this set can be seen as a bit of the BoDeans “unplugged.” For example, three songs are gentle, stripped-down re-workings of group recordings. In addition, BoDeans keyboardist Bukka Allen contributes accordion to nearly every track. Here, his work takes the stark moodiness of the songs away from the roots/alternative sounds typical of the full band. The other players were drawn from friends in Milwaukee, including Matt Turner on bass and producer Gary Tanin who adds sporadic strings. Special credit should go to percussionist Ryan Schiedermayer whose hands provide the rhythms. They give many of the songs enough energy and variety to elevate the tone from what could have been too much sameness, too much morning melancholia.

Of course, the principle instrument is Llanas’s ragged, often strangled voice. He sounds like it is indeed four in the morning and he doesn’t want to wake the neighbors. But as the “truth” he’s singing about is personal and intimate, he pumps out enough soul to give some of his lyrics, as with “Oh, Celia” and “4 A.M.” more power than the words might deserve. On the other hand, some tracks, as with the BoDean’s “Shyne,” provide some late-night irony to his images. In this case, he wants to dance “with the devil’s daughter under city lights.” Gratefully, whether the lyrics are repetitive or surprising, the musical bed keeps the atmosphere unified, and sometimes slickly so. For example, Schiedermayer adds restrained but polished textures to “Nobody Loves Me” and Llanas’s one cover, Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night.” ”Oh How I Loved You” also showcases some subtle musical touches, in this case evocative guitar flourishes.

Llanas’s stories tend to be more colorful in his character sketches of past lovers like “Fare Thee Well” and “Janey,” with whom he’s had “a hell of a wonderful fight.” “Cherry O” has perhaps the best lyrics of the collection, telling the story of a lover he didn’t want to hurt as much as he did, only “a little more than you hurt me.” On second thought, the final cut, “The Way Home,” has the best lines as Llanas builds a growing entourage of the living and the dead who march home together after the night’s work is done–“the days are the verses of your life.”

I’m not certain these songs will earn Llanas new fans, and no doubt some BoDeans followers will be disappointed by the low-energy settings throughout this offering. Still, it would be a cold heart that can’t identify with the times and places Llanas sings about. This is an album for when you’re drinking wine, not beer, for when the door is locked and you’re not going anywhere.

 

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