A few years ago, I reviewed a terrific EP from a one-man Montana band that called itself Al’s Auto Color, but was really just an outlet for the words and music of Justin Hackett, a singer/songwriter with an earthy, country-inflected sound that had shades of Al Anderson and John Hiatt. That EP, Hors D’oeuvre #1, remains one of the most pleasant critical surprises I’ve received in recent memory, and I often wondered what, if anything, came of the full-length disc Hackett said he was working on.
Well, now I know: Take the Highway, which finds Hackett retiring the Al’s Auto Color nom de guitar in favor of the name his parents gave him, is out and proud, offering nine tracks of homespun goodness for folks who like their roots rock rough around the edges. Hackett’s sound definitely isn’t for everyone — his voice is a rather blunt instrument, and it’s abundantly clear that neither Pro Tools nor Auto-Tune came anywhere near his vocal tracks — but some of my favorite singers are guys who can’t really sing, and even if he lacks polish (or consistently compelling material), Hackett still throws enough sparks on his full-length debut to keep things interesting.
The album kicks off with “Big Debut,” a gradually building opener that does a terrific job of encapsulating the wobbly, vulnerable appeal of Hackett’s music. Over subtle synths and a circular fingerpicked melody, Hackett croaks and croons near what sounds like the upper limits of his range; it’s got an overly dramatic finish, particularly in the context of the rest of the album, but its dogged, ragtag optimism and gently insistent hook suggest great things for the album. It’s a hard act to follow, actually, as proven by the title track, which gets off to a rough, jerky start before settling into a pleasantly shambolic gait. It’s a smart, quirky song, and Hackett’s arrangement helps it transcend its shopworn lyrical motif, but it isn’t as immediately gratifying as “Big Debut.”
Hackett sounds a little like a cowboy-hatted Loudon Wainwright III on the banjo-laced “A Lot to Learn” — not only vocally, but by dint of sharp, salt-of-the-earth lines like “You don’t have to change the world / It changes every day.” He’s about more than trad instruments and lyrical bon mots, though; he’s got a slightly experimental streak that he shows off with “Swing Time,” a song that suggests what might happen if Fred Schneider spent a few weeks listening to nothing but taking ‘ludes and listening to “Slow Ride.” Hackett can also write a good old-fashioned pop song when the moood strikes him — “Give That Kiss” combines a quirky, stuttering melody with the push-and-pull rhythm of its arrangement and a nice, expansive chorus (whose melody is just out of his reach, natch), and “Beautiful Story” is a pretty, folk-tinged ballad that lives up to its title.
Not every song is a winner: “Push Me Around” is a woozy, interminable ballad that pulls the record’s energy right down the drain after “Swing Time,” and “Bitter” is a country ballad that’s both dull and lyrically deficient (yes, “leave” rhymes with “sleeve”), while closing track “Maxi Yasgur’s Farm,” though it boasts an appropriately bucolic melody, isn’t a particularly interesting choice for a closing track. Though it would have meant repurposing earlier recordings, Highway would have benefited from the EP’s instantly memorable “Maybe” and Hackett’s instrumental solo cover of Agustin Barrios’ “Choro da Saudade,” either as replacements for “Push Me Around” and “Bitter” or as a way of beefing up the album’s length.
Still, in the end, Hackett cares more about telling his story than putting together an album with broad appeal, and you have to respect him for that. Take the Highway is a record made with the purest of intentions — with the artist as his own most important audience — and although it’s certainly uneven, and although Hackett needs a producer to lock him in the vocal booth and refuse to let him out until he nails down his lines, that purity is enough to carry its best songs. It’s the kind of album that even a jaded critic can pull out as a reminder of what’s really important.