The Straight Hits! by Josh T. Pearson

Release date: April 13, 2018
Label: Mute

In 2001, a trio of Texan gentlemen unleashed one of the greatest albums of all time, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. The band called themselves Lift To Experience and they were led by the enigmatic Josh T. Pearson. It would be another 10 years before Josh would release any more music to the world and debut Last of the Country Gentlemen was far removed from his previous work, the tumultuous rock of Lift To Experience abandoned for acoustic guitar. Josh’s bedraggled appearance, a heavy beard, all black attire and Stetson has been usurped in favour of shorn hair and a nifty white suit (the Stetson remains intact). As he puts it best “In the last years I learned to dance, take drugs, make love…choose life. I got rid of the beard, cut my hair and started wearing colour”. New album The Straight Hits! had to conform to certain parameters, known as The Five Pillars. All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge. The lyrics must run 16 lines or less. They must have the word ‘straight’ in the title. That title must be four words or less (with one exception). They must submit to song above all else.

The album opens with ‘Straight to the Top’, a rattlin’ and rompin’ rock n roll supercharger. Josh’s vocals almost verging on parody as he exuberates over-excitement and the insane swoop into the chorus finds the previously morose singer doing something completely new and having a blast doing it. As the man himself declares “I’m going’ straight to the top! I’m movin’ forward and I can’t be stopped”. It’s actually hard to adjust to this newfound fun-lovin’ Pearson but it makes sense when you hear the rest of the album. The pitch bended guitars and staggering (but brief) solo remind us what was so good about Lift To Experience.

Keeping with the fun vibe the lilting keyboards on sprightly little ditty ‘Straight at Me’ are miles away from the apocalyptic soundscapes of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. When Josh commits the cardinal sin of whistling on this track you start to wonder what is going on with the clean cut cat in the hat. A heavenly bridge resplendent with lovely falsetto introduces a little repeat value for a song that basically has me worried with a one-two as upbeat as these two songs. There’s got to be some melancholic sounds coming soon, and as the track winds to a close Josh sneaks in one of those trademark Duane Eddy twangs and you sense the past hasn’t completely been abandoned.

‘Give it to Me Straight’ is a rockabilly bopper with handclaps and whoops that on first listen really did hit me with concern that Josh’s newfound optimism meant his nihilism and world-end tones were confined to history. The vocal histrionics continue to be over the top and when Josh is joined by more merry men the song becomes a pub singalong. Bar piano? Yep, throw that into the mix too.
‘Straight Laced Come Undone’ harks back to the solo debut, an acoustic stroll that takes things down a notch. A simple campfire melody finds Pearson in full-on story mode immaculately fitting more words than seems possible. Josh hits croon mode for cover version of Jonathan Terrell’s ‘Damn Straight’, another acoustic country lament with added background harmonies. You definitely sense a downturn in mood from the initial playfulness but the track still finds Josh in upbeat frivolous form.

The twanging guitar that introduces ‘Loved Straight to Hell’ hints at former glories and when the full groove rattles up from the ether it’s a shimmering and sinister soundscape that regresses Josh into the aforementioned darker days. Religion still features heavily in the lyrics too as Pearson wondrously intones “You were my sanctuary, my holy place when weak, and now you wouldn’t even greet me were we alone on a dead end street. And in my time of mourning, in my times of deep despair, I cursed your name out right, Loved Straight to Hell sent down my prayers”. The guitars are reverbed and snaking all over the humongous driving bass, which leaves no room at all for the drums that can’t compete with the onslaught of the six and four string attack. As the track becomes dense and heavy, Pearson begins to shake and mumble incoherently, the guitars begin to swell and erupt from the ground and the heavens open to accept this almighty and furious beast of a sound. It is just stunning and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up straight every time. Not content to wind things down the guitars elevate to My Bloody Valentine levels of shoegaze fury and it is blissful. Easily the equal of anything Lift To Experience released, this is worth the admission fee and a bona fide classic.

‘The Dire Straights of Love’ is something of a comedown from the heavy swamp groove of the previous track, picking up the acoustic for a 50s style crooner, resplendent with “bum-bum-oooh” background vocals and finger clicks. Pearson shows of his mellow side with a lovingly crafted song with tender lyrics such as “If ever there’s a problem in our kingdom, if ever we both get lost at sea, then let this love song be our lighthouse, Oh to sail you back to me…”. ‘Whisky Straight Love’ is a melancholic and acoustic picked country lament to drinking whisky and a complete turnaround from the early frivolity at the start of the album. It dawns on me that this album plays out like an evening on the lash, the early tracks full of playfulness and raucous whoopin’ and a hollerin’. The middle of the album sees the mood change as the drink takes hold and the mood takes on a dark turn with ‘Loved Straight to Hell’. There’s no turning back from the epiphany and the remaining tracks are reflective and downbeat, maybe even full of regret at what has happened in not just the immediate past but further afield.

The start of ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’ finds a fragile programmed beat meet a delicate staccato guitar and Josh quietly intoning “Love’s the greatest threat ever know to beguile man, the most terrifying four-letter word of all” before being joined by keening keyboards that hold you tight. The melodies are heart-breaking and Josh’s higher pitch and beautiful vocal delivery provides another album highlight. As the guitars ably prop Pearson up and the drums become increasingly hefty you sense this song is going to end in something epic. Another one of those eruptive swells of guitars bursts forth and those neck hairs get to stretch again. The perfect introduction of some beautiful brass allows Josh to unleash some preacher platitudes (“Amen”). A unique lyricist, Pearson references his former band with “But Kitten I’m so grateful your love song crawled into my life, like a knife, cut up my heart with it’s sweet and tender melody, risked love’s Lift To Experience new heights, blew out all my superficial lights, bent me over the edge of the darkness and electrified my nights…”

Album closer ‘Straight Down Again’ is a downbeat track but there are suggestions of acceptance and remorse and the lush piano adds warmth and grace. Josh’s final words are “Love is a dog from Hell, and man come down, she’s a bitch, I’m going straight, but first my drug Lord of love…Could ya hit me again?”.

The reversal of moods that you experience in this album is truly unlike anything I have ever heard before and once you get to the other side you begin to appreciate and accept those early excursions into almost silly territories. Pearson’s physical appearance is more inviting these days (clean shaven, short hair as opposed to the straggly beard that made him look 20 years older). Despite looking like a possessed preacher he is/was actually a very affable and friendly man in person. His musical vision seems to want to embrace fun but the dark demons are still roaming and this all adds to the intrigue. I doubt Pearson will ever touch the glory of that stunning 2001 revelation but there are certainly times on The Straight Hits! where he comes damn close.

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