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Carwreck Conversations

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Album Review

Carwreck Conversations, Ralston Bowles' debut, is a mature, thoughtful portrait of age, youth, and the place "where dreams and truth collide." Along the way he aims more questions inward than at the outside world, without ever falling prey to easy rationalizations or self-pity. In the record's stark opener, the late Mark Heard's "What Kind of Friend," backed simply by a stark drumbeat, he asks, "What kind of friend am I?" It may not seem like much on the surface, but Ralston (who drops his surname) proceeds to show why this may be the toughest question of all. In his quest for "grace" (the title of one of the album's best songs), there are obstacles: angry words, wants, needs, regrets, and plenty of gray areas, all of which are handled with humility, dignity, and a somewhat spiritual bent (think T-Bone Burnett). There's also a subtlety and insight at work here that's missing in the material of most singer/songwriters these days. Bowles steers clear of the big statements and grand gestures. Instead, he deals with the quiet complexities of the everyday. Even a song like "James Dean," which juxtaposes the icon's live fast, die young legend and the final years of an Alzheimer's patient (which in lesser hands could easily turn to melodramatic schlock), is handled masterfully. And while Carwreck Conversations may deal with some weighty issues, it never gets caught up in philosophical sludge. Musically, producer Marvin Etzioni brings both the warmth and understated edge inherent in Bowles' music to the fore. His spare, sympathetic production suits the material perfectly, from the jagged electric guitar lines of "You Already Knew That" and the mandolin-driven folk-rock of "Grace" to the organ and pedal steel moodiness of "Fragile" and the lovely fingerpicked acoustic guitar and keyboard of the tender "What About Me." He brings space, tension, and even sweetness to the music, which become part of the songs, and not just window dressing. This is folk-rock in the best sense of the word. Complex yet simple, much of Carwreck Conversations can be summed up in the extended metaphor of the record's closer, "Draper": "And I am but a draper in a room of wool/Looking for a pattern feeling like a fool/Trying to take this fabric, stretch it to the seams/Trying to find what's woven/Underneath these tailored dreams."

Carwreck Conversations, Ralston
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