Goin’ By Feel is a good name for this album. The playing, the arrangements, and the songwriting are all about feel, in different ways.
Ray Bonneville has a great feel for a groove. He plays his guitar with some light reverb, but otherwise with minimal effects, and his style is percussive. The drums and bass that appear on most tracks provide accents, and enhance the groove. but the guitar is mixed front and center. This is not dance music, however. This groove is a heartbeat, a pulse that provides motion.
Bonneville’s voice is a baritone with some grit. There is dust gently blowing down a country track in this voice, or spatters of light rain falling on a cheek. Like his guitar playing, Bonneville’s voice does not batter you with emotion; the effect is subtle. The emotions are carried by the words, and occasionally enhanced by Bonneville’s harmonica.
About those words; on first listen to them, I found this album very frustrating. Each song would start a story, but never finish it. I wanted to know what happened next. What Katy Did was especially aggravating; we never do find out what Katy did, but there are tantalizing clues.
But then I began to realize what Bonneville was up to. What Katy Did is not about Katy; it’s about a man who learned her secret, promised not to tell it, and is finding his promise hard to keep. The song is not a story at all; it’s about a character’s state of mind at a particular moment in time. And that is what this album is, a collection of moments. So Carry the Fallen describes a woman’s feelings on seeing the flag draped coffins returning from the war, and knowing that this is a sight her government didn’t mean for her to see. Sabine River describes a chance meeting between a man and woman traveling to New Orleans, at that moment when the meeting of two people is fraught with fears and full of possibilities. Cemetery Road describes the feelings of a woman as she walks by the cemetery where a loved one is buried; the nature of the relationship and the cause of death are never completely clear. Most unusually, I Am The Big Easy finds the city of New Orleans personified, contemplating its sense of identity in light of recent events; this is a concept that could have fallen flat on its face, but Bonneville makes it work.
So the words describe strong feelings and emotional conflicts. The singing and playing never force these emotions upon the listener. And the feelings are exposed by the lack of narrative; I haven’t encountered this type of songwriting very often, but in the end it works quite well. I am tempted to want an author to write a collection of short stories filling in all the missing pieces in these songs; but they would probably lose much of their immediacy and power if they were explained. So my advice is, listen to these songs, and live in the moment for a little while.
Ray Bonneville: Sabine River
Ray Bonneville: Carry the Fallen