If you were concerned that the return of Rustic Overtones would mean the ends of their various side projects, it’s clear now that was a fruitless worry. The ancillary releases have intensified as the Overtones continue to hone their second post-break album. The new year already brought us work from Dave Noyes, and upcoming releases include a new Dave Gutter project, a Spencer Albee disc (not that he’s an Overtone anymore), and now Tony McNaboe, who’s crafted another soulful solo album, both self-produced and recorded (though Jonathan Wyman did the mixing).
As is the rage nowadays (see the accompanying Hutch Heelan review), there are guest spots by the likes of Gypsy Tailwind’s Dan Connor and fellow Overtones Nigel Hall and John Roods, but this is very much NcNaboe’s album. It is more overtly spiritual than 2003’s Destination, more personal, raw, and dispirited, and it’s no tossed-off, let’s-see-what-happens affair. He moves himself forward artistically, drawing on hip-hop and chanted singer-songwritery fare à là Citizen Cope, and creates songs with substance.
In fact, the album reads like the tale of a man who’s just coming out of a deep winter, touched by a bit of frostbite. In 2003, Ray LaMontagne was opening for him. Nowadays, McNaboe’s got his band back together with another album on the way. What happened in the middle? “Tired eyes, ain’t slept in two days ... I swear I’m killing myself a little bit every day”; “Lately if you see me/I apologize ... I failed my family and friends”; “There’s beauty in this somewhere/and I just got to find it.”
Whether he’s playing a role in individual narratives, or testifying about his own faith, McNaboe doesn’t blow smoke up anyone’s dress on the new The Cost of Living. There isn’t, however, any sign of self-pity or resignation. On the six-minute title track — housing the potentially maudlin line, “he can’t feel a thing from his neck to his feet/but he can still feel a heartbeat” — he takes pains to finish the chorus on an upswing, so living seems less a burden than a jewel to be coveted.
If anything, McNaboe doesn’t go as far with his music as he does with his message. At times, there’s full-on incongruity. For “Doomed,” a slow piano love song, the first verse suggests he’s doomed to love this girl forever, but then he’s failing his family and friends (“that’s what people do”) and the faithful, grateful guy is gone and I’m depressed but snapping my fingers and singing along.
In the finishing “A Prayer, Pts 1 + 2,” he’s thanking Jesus, confessing all, asking to be taught to stand up and walk again, savoring every word of every verse like a gobstopper, but the synths that drive the melody feel really cold. It’s an organic message delivered in a digital way. There are times when you can just see the ProTools screen in front of you with McNaboe painting in the bass line (“I Know You Hate Goodbyes”).
Maybe it’s just taste, but I find myself gravitating toward “Miracle,” where his voice is most naked, the piano is pretty-sad, and when the effects enter it’s an accent instead of a means.
“We know tomorrow’s on the way, and it’s a brand new day,” but seeing is believing, and there’s a difference between being told something and actually hearing it.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TONY MCNABOE + DAVE GUTTER | Alive at 5 | June 23