It should be a given that most drummers should stay behind the kit (we’re looking at you, Tommy Lee). But Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel shows that he can do more than keep the rhythm with his debut, Hustler’s Son. With tips from Conor Oberst, Boesel has made an album of dark, sorrowful country rock songs, almost as if he were a modern day version of Kris Kristofferson.
Hustler’s Son is completely down home, with minimal effects and a totally spontaneous format. We live in a musical landscape where chillwave and trip-hop and other descriptors and mangled genres are commonplace; it’s refreshing to have an album that is so technically basic. It avoids turning to notorious “indie tactics”, i.e. often borderline absurd and overwrought lyrics or playing with general song conventions. Ambient sounds are another overused musical tool. Any kind of blank spaces or noises meant to radiate out feel new and interesting, like the squeal of the keys/organs in “I Got The Reason”; it’s sparing and is thus more impacting.
This album puts Boesel in a category with guys like Brendan Benson and Cory Chisel. As wonderful as both their recent solo albums were, Boesel has found a place that is unique, one that is purely based in country music in its technique and sound but with a spirit and outlook that is wholly new and fresh, open to the painful stimuli of the world while being just as guarded. For lack of a better term, the album pushes that sensitive indie sensibility without falling prey to its often formulaic pitfalls of being overly conceptualized.
There’s so many variances of country throughout the effort. There’s a bit of that south of the border strumming meets The Eagles (“Black Waves”) and some Nashville campfire sing-along of regret and remorse (“Hand of God”) and even something circa Rumors Fleetwood Mac (“French Kissing”). But then a song like “New World Mama” feels like a poppier, less intellectual Cat Stevens about the delicacy and fickleness of love. And when he wants to get down and dirty in some dive bar full of the perpetually lonely, the title track brings it.
The lyrics best exemplify Boesel’s unique position. “Black Waves” has the line, “It’s like waiting for another letter after that 26th one.“ That feels real and tangible; it’s broken and beat down, but there’s a sliver of ignorant optimism. The line “Saw a crystal ball rolling down the street, thought I’d catch a ride” from “Hand of God” is about as obscure as he gets. When he sings a line like “Death tattoos and babies, who know that’s what love was all about” (from “Burned Out and Busted”), you feel the visceral, gut reaction of being utterly destroyed. But he’s not afraid to play with lyrical concepts either, like “Getting healthy is just time and money, running free is just fool’s gold” from “Getting Healthy (Good Luck)”.
It’s the little touches that further separates him from the pack. “Was It, Man” is like an old Johnny Cash song: The use of the word “man” is a literary device, which is hokey in and of itself, but used to powerful and worldly means to tell a story about a down-trodden life and whether it meant anything. Another thing is the lack of harmonies and multiple singer arrangements, which enhances the overall mood of being utterly alone.
This is an album teeming with gritty sounds from years gone by and just as much backlogged pain. For Boesel, the light at the end is perpetually out of reach. But you’ll enjoy the struggle.