Tommy Alexander: ‘Waves’ [Album Review]

Vortex Music Magazine

On his sophomore album, the Portland songwriter basks in moody summertime Americana.

Against all odds, summertime has arrived, and well… it’s probably never been more welcome in the history of the world for a multitude of dizzying reasons. Lest this become a manifesto upon the place that music fits into the grand scheme of revolution, politics and existentialism, we will downsize the hyperbole a smidge and give ourselves permission to admit that, yes, summertime is better with music. Anything can sound summery in summertime; it’s our right as Earth-born humans to apply whatever resonance we like to the sounds we enjoy while the sun is out, especially in a place like Portland, where the sun isn’t out all that often.

For the purposes of this overview, suffice it to say that Tommy Alexander’s sophomore album, Waves, is being listened to under the auspices of the spirits of summertime, who have finally bequeathed their fleeting blue-sky optimisms unto our weary bones. And through that lens, you’ve gotta love hearing the earnest country-lite magic coming from Alexander and his crack crew of musical cohorts. Despite the fact that Waves was recorded in December 2019 (by the esteemable Bart Budwig), the album’s seesaw between tearjerker ballads, juke-joint rockers and poetic ambience is a surprisingly feel-good effort that hits just right, right now. However its waves have crested, they’re settling well on a 2020 that’s blown up in everyone’s faces.

Album opener “Troubled Mind” is a clear indication of the ramblin’ slacker philosophies that seem effortless to Alexander. The song’s giddy-up bar rock sensibilities are accented by the slick lead guitar tandem of Taylor Kingman (TK & The Holy Know-Nothings) and Adam Witkowski (Left Coast Country). Alexander’s heavy-lidded missives on the rigors of being stomped on daily by the entire goddamn world are front and center as he sings, “I don't want to go to work today/I’d rather smoke some weed and cry/I've been sitting here wasting away with a troubled mind.” The song’s beautiful trick is that it makes you believe you’re somehow celebrating its downer mentality by way of its raucous rhythmic foundation—and I guess, in some ways, you are. Finding ways to get up and go sometimes begins with acknowledging how badly you don’t want to. And if that isn’t a metaphor for 2020, what the hell are we even doing?

Just as easily as Waves is introduced with the moral quagmire of its opener, Alexander downshifts to the barebones “Stone Fox,” a moody number that relies more heavily on the fragility of Alexander’s vocals, as he lays poetic verse over pillowy instrumentation before the song allows itself to explode toward the end for a satisfying crescendo.

Alexander has a voice that can adapt to every corner of songcraft he explores, from the lovesick geetar country ballad “Doing Things Together,” to the summery pop chill-out “Whatever You Say,” where Alexander’s folksy storytelling remains vivid with lines like, “And now she stands so proud and tall/telling the world all the stories she stole/about to see this world's about to change/it’s one more stranger bound for shame.”

The title track is a gorgeous, wide-open dissertation on feeling lost, accompanied only by soft bass lines and atmospheric synths (both played by songwriter Mike Coykendall), giving a warm, floating surreality that suits Alexander’s pained lyrics. By the next track, “Tears,” we’re right back to swaying in a dark saloon with a half-empty Michelob and sweat stains in our pits. Tinkling piano comes courtesy of Witkowski while the rock-solid rhythm section of Ian Wade (bass) and Buddy Weeks (drums) lays a sleepy-eyed foundation for a Hank Williams-like country ditty, replete with clever turns of phrase as Alexander sings, “Those tears I cry/I let them be/I whore my heart out/spoiled all my seeds/I was just lonesome without a thing to do/those tears were lying/these tears are true.”

Part of the endearment with Waves is its unwillingness to succumb to just one facet of songwriting or style, giving license to explore all manner of sonic and emotional real estate over the album’s nine songs. Alexander can give it to you straight, or indulge in the more abstract (sometimes within the same song), which offers a kind of mirror for you to find your own reflection inside of. Most of the time, you can see yourself, but then there’s that smaller percentage of time where you’re looking at someone a little lost in their own existential wasteland.

Waves is that kind of record—one where you feel like you’re permitted to run through the same trials as the guy singing the songs. And since we’re all more or less apart from each other these days, that connection is a pretty nice feeling.

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