Ken Will Morton: Contenders

Ken Will Morton
[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Ken Will Morton recorded his sixth album, Contenders, in the most laid back way possible. He spent a day or two at producer Russ Hallauer’s studio in Athens, Georgia, where he sang and strummed a few songs, usually doing no more than one or two takes. Afterwards, members of his backing band overdubbed flourishes of piano, mandolin, banjo, and muted percussion. While it lacks the reckless energy and full-band dynamic of his previous albums, which are dominated by electric guitar and drums, the ramshackle acoustic sound of Contenders couches Morton’s distinctive vocals perfectly and puts the focus squarely to his lyrics. There’s a lot of room to stretch out and get comfortable in these songs – to appreciate his subtle turns of phrase and the rugged grain of his voice, which implies a pack-or-two-a-day habit and a hard road behind him.

The mood of Contenders is ruminative and occasionally roguish, as Morton surveys an America full of hard-livin’, hard-drinkin’ characters – himself included. The denizens of “Rough & Tumble” and “Swan On The River” are beautiful losers who lend that album title a bit irony: “Your bread has mold and your shirt has holes, and your floor hasn’t been cleaned up since Katrina,” he sings on “Rough & Tumble.” “Scratch-off lottery thrills won’t pay those stacked-up bills.” Morton’s cover of The Kinks’ “Strangers,” with its haggard paranoia and desperate desire for connection, fits right in, even if that pop chorus sounds a bit awkward in this acoustic setting.

Morton has explained that his songwriting is inspired by old-time folk musicians who sang and played well outside the industry, as well as by hip-hop artists who represent that industry so many decades later. One group informs his love of guitars and whiskey-throttled vocals, the other his emphasis on language. Morton’s songs are casually observant, and he tends to understate the wit and let the concrete details speak for themselves. “Broken Windows” opens the album with a verse about the steady rotation of a fan and the steady tick of a clock, creating a scene of such stillness that it seems to take ages to get to the chorus. That patience lends even greater gravity to his observations about the constant and often unexpected changes that define every life.

Morton doesn’t lace his songs with punchlines, but he does have a mordant sense of humor. On “Que Lastima,” which could have been a hit for Freddy Fender in the ‘70s, he outlines a few gossipy twists of fate, and his delivery suggests he revels in the grim irony of a man eaten by his pet piranhas or a woman killed by her Mr. Right. “What a pity,” Morton half-smirks. “Next time it could be happening to you.”

Or it could be happening to Morton himself, as he finds himself more than ten years into a career that hasn’t quite gone as planned, to put it gently. Several songs address creative and professional frustrations. Yet, he never sounds bitter or self-pitying, just self-reflective and gently self-deprecating. He’s a glass-half-full kind of songwriter, and while he admits, “I had some big plans, dreamt of success,” in the end “somehow I stay happy enough.”

It’s only on its final song that Contenders falters. While the album fleetingly addresses recession-era America, closer “Change” attacks the issue of divisive politics head-on but sounds too literal and even nonsensical. “The pot who’s first to call the kettle black just perpetuates a darkness that keeps the light from ever coming back,” he sings, seemingly arguing in favor of hypocrisy. But where the lyrics fail, the music triumphs: The spare accompaniment of harmonica and mandolin conveys his resignation more than any of his clumsy words.

Who knows if this acoustic record is a lark or a sign of things to come, but Contenders certainly widens Morton’s range and sharpens his delivery. It may not be the best album of his career, but it’s certainly the most surprising.

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