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Josh T. Pearson - Last of the Country Gentleman

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Artist: Josh T. Pearson

Album: Last of the Country Gentleman

Label: Mute

Review date: Mar. 29, 2011

Just as Josh T. Pearson’s career has moved in slow motion, so does his solo debut, Last of the Country Gentlemen.

Pearson got a leg up over a decade ago as the guitarist and frontman of a Denton, Texas, power trio called Lift to Experience. Balancing the skyward ambitions of statemates Explosions in the Sky with the grit of a band that actually cares about the legacy of rock music, the volume and effects of My Bloody Valentine, and the scope of Biblical prophecies, their lone full-length, The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads, foretold of the end of days happening down the road a piece from Pearson’s wooden shack. Lift to Experience signed with the burgeoning UK label Bella Union, back when American bands had a chance of breaking in England before they would receive attention in their own land. A significant and foreboding work, ironically wrapped in a No Limit-style sleeve, this double album had the misfortune of hitting shelves in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, and any good fortune the band might had amassed to that point was squashed under the weight of real tragedy; no American labels were hot to jump on a band that writes concept records about the apocalypse. With critical praise but no market leverage, the band split up, and Pearson disappeared.

Ten years later, he’s been found in Berlin at the helm of a work with a similar scope. Last of the Country Gentlemen plays on Pearson’s strengths as a musician, having traded off the electric onslaught for an austere acoustic tableau, and shedding the band altogether, minus some tear-jerking string arrangements from Dirty Three violinist and Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis. These seven songs were cut in two days’ time, the culmination of what the artist refers to as “a rough year.”

From the sound of Country Gentleman, that year was likely more trying and painful than revelatory for Pearson. It’s good to come back to the realm of the living – from sorrow, from upbringing, from alcohol – and brave of those who find that they must choose that path in order to live. With this work, he makes good on an attempt to address his problems in a straightforward fashion. He’s certainly well-armed for the cause, with a solemn, flowing approach to guitar, and a voice that channels Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen with the hill country sorrow of Townes Van Zandt. And in the format of the double album LP, with over half the songs heading into 10-minute runtimes, he’s going to take you on the scenic route through all the pain he’s experienced.

If only Pearson was as compelling a lyricist as any of the abovementioned figures, Last of the Country Gentlemen might have matched the power of his earlier work. There, too, he peppered the songs with bon mots like “Texas is the reason,” but there was a lot more going on in Lift to Experience’s music, and every whim, every possibly misconceived notion (like barbershop quartet tracking of his voice) worked in the band’s favor. That sort of thing hardly ever happens, and it may have tainted his perceptions of what it takes to make a memorable piece of music. With this album, he’s not as fortunate. Laid as bare as the stark, desperate, tear-welling sounds on call, we’re forced to stare down Pearson’s matter-of-fact delivery across a misinterpretation of Step 8 and other parts of recovery. The artist’s mistakes, in essence, are forced on the listener, whose only choice is to follow along or turn it off, as there’s nothing more than the figurative bare light bulb swinging from the rafter. From the loutish album cover to the smooth, heartfelt delivery of such awkward diatribes, his work asks more of us than we ever can of it. The refrain of “I’m in love with a woman who’s not my wife” on the unfortunately-titled “Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her” does not inspire sympathy or confidence within his work; nor does something like “these shots keep me sane, sober and alive” from “Country Dumb,” which may accurately reflect his own relapse, but takes for granted all the hard work that people who are in recovery put in every day. The most poetic track is called “Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell,” and his platitudes on chest-thumping male scourge and fabled badassery don’t resemble the constitution of anyone I’d want to know.

It’s tough to get through 20 minutes of this, let alone an hour’s worth. That is obviously the intent of this very masculine, very selfish sentiment; that in order to overcome certain problems, one needs to drag everyone within earshot down to their level, until everyone shares the pain. Life doesn’t have to work that way, which should be the lesson Pearson takes away from this sincere yet humiliating effort.

By Doug Mosurock

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