Saturday, March 26, 2016

Michael Leonard Witham - A Scandal in the Violets

What happens when you toss together Ryan Bingham’s gruff baritone, Paolo Nutini’s evocative sultriness, and Conor Oberst’s go-for-broke style? You get a voice not unlike that of Michael Leonard Witham, whose debut album, A Scandal in the Violets, is one of the best Americana albums of the year so far.

Witham has one of the more interesting origin stories for a musician of his ilk. Four years ago, Witham had hardly ever sang a note or strummed a chord, let alone written an accomplished folk song. His hobbies dwelled elsewhere, namely with diving into dumpsters and collecting stuff that everyone else would deem “trash.” But when one of those junk collecting endeavors brought Witham to a dumpster behind a Louisiana strip mall, everything started to change. For laying in the dumpster was an acoustic guitar—or at least, the ghostly frame of one.

Beat to hell, with no strings, the Yamaha guitar was little more than firewood when Witham found it. But Witham’s ability to see beauty in broken things—which is also, unsurprisingly, one of his best qualities as a songwriter—allowed him to imagine greater things for the weather-worn instrument. He went home, fixed up the guitar with the help of a few internet tutorials, and taught himself how to play. Fast forward four years and Witham is a full-time musician, and this record and its 10 songs represent his first full-length foray into the recording business.

Like other modern gruff-voiced singer songwriters—everyone from the aforementioned Bingham and Oberst to guys like Jesse Malin and Brian Fallow—Witham has a bit of classic rock in him. Take the jaunty mid-tempo groover, “Miss L.A.,” which splits the difference between the Rolling Stones and James Taylor, or “The Good Doctor’s Double Vodka Blues,” which sounds like it might just be a lost cut from The Basement Tapes. Heck, the exceptional album opener, “Sorry Girl But the Show is Over,” sounds like an Elton John song being covered by Tom Waits. There’s a timeless quality to these songs that hasn’t been present on many records lately, and it’s refreshing to hear—especially coming from a guy who is still incredibly “new” to this whole music thing.

Not that all of Witham’s songs look to classic rock for influence, because he spends just as much time in the country music vein. “Last Plea to Ashley Ann” has a bass line straight out of a Johnny Cash song, while the harmonica-and-slide-guitar-assisted closer, “Where the Witches Live,” recalls some of Bob Dylan’s twangier moments. Approximately half of the songs make some use of pedal steel; Travis-picked acoustic guitars are prevalent throughout. Even looking at the tracklist and song titles on this record makes the set seem like something that should have released during the golden age of Nashville.

Occasionally, Witham’s voice gets a bit too gruff and gritty to be enjoyable. This is particularly problematic on the aforementioned “Ashley Ann,” which ends up being weirdly brash and bombastic, thanks to Witham's voice. A moodier, more subdued arrangement of the song would likely be more effective and less grating. For the most part, though, A Scandal in the Violets is one lovely country ballad and/or classic rock track after another. You can take off points for unoriginality if you like, but the question is this: why would you want to when an album does traditional styles in as moving and authentic a fashion as this one?

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