The Austin Chronicle

Phases & Stages

Reviewed by Greg Beets, July 11, 2014, Music

Six years after mourning the death of his wife in a car accident on Never Say Never, Austin's renowned UK expat and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist turns his wizened eye to romantic relationships in all their glory and sorrow. Despite the impossibility of not flashing back to Ian McLagan's Small Faces/Faces tenure whenever his warm Wurlitzer electric piano tone crackles to life on "All I Wanna Do," United States doesn't traffic in nostalgia. These are songs that feel lived in, where every scuff mark tells a story. Mac's graveled voice stretches and cracks in all the right places, providing extra lift to his soulful pleas. Stripped of cloying wordplay and melodrama, his plainspoken lyrics capture the unvarnished, everyday sentiments you might expect to hear expressed between longtime friends and lovers over pints. Making the most of a forlorn piano-guitar arrangement, "Mean Old World" bears potent traces of the saloon song aesthetic Frank Sinatra pined for in his autumnal years: "I can't be true to a woman who's wishing she's with someone else," he sings, voice strategically catching on the last word. Singing to his late wife on "Love Letter," McLagan puts form to his grief simply by reiterating her absence with every declaration of affection. By contrast, "Who Says It Ain't Love" opens on a carnival ride organ riff before sliding into a booze-fueled hook-up to escape the loneliness. Through it all, "Scrappy" Jud Newcomb's subtle-yet-pronounced guitar work adds color without unnecessary distraction. Having classic rock production gurus Glyn Johns mix and Bob Ludwig master these Manor-baked recordings didn't hurt, either. With its durable theme and shambling demeanor, United States makes a different kind of sense with each successive spin. It's adult rock music in the best sense of the oxymoron.


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