Escaping Southern Heat
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Third time’s a charm? That’s the cliché but, in Ross Adams’ case, it holds true.
The Charlotte, North Carolina-based singer/songwriter has released two previous sets (2014 and 2018), which went largely under the radar. For this one though, he calls in the big guns. That would be Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band and producer Jimbo Hart, who also plays bass in the outfit. Even if the songs are written and sung by Adams, the assistance he gets from the expert players in the 400 Unit goes a long way to creating a tight, tough, sympathetic bed the singer/songwriter can work atop.
Whether it’s the taut, soulful near pop of “Burning Flame” where Adams longs for lost love as the peppy melody bounces along, or the Springsteen-styled arena-ready bombast of the title track, complete with Derry deBorgia’s swelling piano runs and an electric guitar that slices through the thumping sonics, Adams and his backing band find a rugged groove where each song connects with nimble playing and crisp dynamics.
On the bittersweet country “Wilted Roses” he once again loses the girl, comparing their relationship to the titular dying flowers and singing in a resigned voice, You said as our love grew, the roses would bloom/ But they just stayed stagnant, you were never home to see the truth, as Tosha Hill takes the female duet vocals. Bob Dylan’s influence is also felt, especially in the extended story of “Teach Me How to Mourn,” as Adams takes the view of a soldier home from war with a severe case of PTSD singing, I watched my bunkmate die in my arms /Nothing I took silenced those alarms. The protagonist’s grief is reflected by an especially melancholy vocal.
Adams is clearly conflicted over his attachment to the South as expressed in the lovely “Tobacco Country,” a low-key ballad enhanced by Whit Wright’s quivering pedal steel and guest Joshua Hedley on somber fiddle. The dark wit of “Sally’s Amphetamines” where the singer decides not to return to his hometown where an old flame has gone crazy due to overindulging on her drug of choice (I’m just fine living my life pristine/I ain’t coming home until she hits the ward clean), along with a honky-tonk beat is another highlight. A few more upbeat tracks emphasizing Sadler Vaden’s jangling guitars like on the opening “Ease Me into Dying” would provide much-needed variation in tone though. Ross Adams is a good tunesmith, if perhaps a better lyricist, whose approach is enhanced substantially with this veteran group of supporting musicians. They know how to deliver the fire, tension, occasional humor, and personality that makes his music click. It’s the special sauce his songs need.