New Music Tuesdays: Chuck Ragan – Feast or Famine

7 08 2007

by mr. travis

chuck ragan - feast or famine

Artist: Chuck Ragan
Album: Fest or Famine
Label: Side One Dummy
Release Date: August 7, 2007

Hot Water Music was one of the premiere underground bands through the late 90’s and into the new century until their demise in 2004 following the release of their swan song The New What’s Next. Hard to define into a specific genre, the band danced around different facets of punk, from hardcore to emo, to straight rock, all the while accumulating a rabid fan base due to that oh so rare commodity of constant touring and doing so with the same amount of energy and ferocity, no matter where they played or to how many people. Like it’s other contemporaries, specifically At the Drive-In and the Get Up Kids, Hot Water Music split, its members reconvening in separate projects, based upon the lines of the two singers, Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard. Where Wollard took the remains of Hot Water Music to create the Draft (which released a good, but nothing special debut last year), Chuck Ragan soldiered on as a solo artist, refashioning himself as a folk troubadour and with his debut, Feast or Famine, proves himself to be a formidable artist in his own right, bridging the gap between punk and folk music.

Themes of regret and trepidation are nothing new to Ragan’s songwriting having been the cornerstone of much of his work with Hot Water Music. But, given the opportunity to try different arrangements than what was available with his previous band, Ragan is shown to have a gift of not only great songwriting, but of choosing the proper instrumentation for his craft. Many singers from bands within the punk scene have tried to go the acoustic route. Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio, Chris McCaughan from the Lawrence Arms are just two examples of the movement, giving serviceable acoustic records which nevertheless feel nothing more than exercises to release songs that wouldn’t fit on their respective bands’ albums. Ragan manages to transcend this habit, by releasing songs that are not only equal to his previous bands’ output, but also push the boundaries of “acoustapunk,” moving Feast or Famine firmly into the folk genre.

Right at the start, Ragan pushed forward his themes of redemption and rebirth in “The Boat” a haunting song backed by a shimmering guitar line, giving the opener a sense of drama. He follows it up with the excellent protest number “For Broken Ears” where he details the soldiers being sent to war based on “the holy lies of an empty heart and overflowing mouth.” But, it’s the third number, “California Burritos” that proves Ragan as a master craftsman, pulling out multiple instruments such as an accordion and a violin, giving this old tune (it was originally a Rumbleseat song, another one of Ragan’s sideprojects), sort of Tom Waits swagger.

The multiple instrumentation within the album gives Ragan and his band the space to make these songs works. On “Do You Pray?” the juxtaposition between his voice and the old time jangle of the band gives off a sense of timelessness, it feels like a folk song, yet it’s very much a product of today. In a lot of ways, this is as good as Bruce Springsteen’s last album, which also was a foray into folk music. A lofty comparison to be sure, but not once does anything on this record feel forced or fake. Ragan is a musician who knows his history, who understands that without the folk, both the music and the working class sensibility, there would be no punk or the various offshoots of the genre.

With Feast or Famine, Chuck Ragan has made a statement, not only musically, but socially. Within a genre such as punk, that is so caught up with its own image (to the point that it looks down on the slightest variation of its sound) it’s great to see one of its stalwarts take a step out of the box, bringing with him the kind of album that will push the boundaries of not just one stale genre, but an older one such as folk as well. Not only is Ragan’s album an excellent album, it stands as one of the best records of 2007, something to be proud of in this cluttered landscape that is the music industry.

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