Sherman Ewing – Single Room Saloon (2011)

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by Nick DeRiso

There are songs you listen to with one elbow jutting out a car window, the gas pedal cutting into the floor mat. Then there are the things that open up different vistas, albums that bring you around to quieter places — sounds that force you to stop and take stock.

Sherman Ewing’s rootsy new Single Room Saloon is the latter, a shattering tale of bad times and big dreams, all told in a redemptive voice that’s, at times, quiet and still; at others, a braying rebuke.

You’ll find, across initial spins, a tidy familiarity to the record. Produced by Godfrey Diamond (Lou Reed, Aerosmith), Saloon deftly references Ewing’s milepost influences in rock, pop and country music. (Longtime collaborator JoJo Hermann of Widespread Panic is also on board.) But, soon enough, the album’s brutal honesty, its keening lyricism and deeply affecting losses, help Ewing find new purchase. Every story rings true.

The smart, snarling wit of “Heaven Waits” sounds like Bob Dylan on a night when he gives a shit, whirling from one memorable specificity to another. (Liner-note nerds — OK, sue me — will also find both drummer George Recile and bassist Tony Garnier, Dylan’s current rhythm section, on all but one song here.) Ewing’s title tune — co-written with Phish lyricist Tom Marshall; it’s desperate, almost palpably hungry — follows the interior conversation of guy who’s stayed out so late that there’s no place left to go. Both feature contributions that are by turns lonely and angularly challenging from trumpeter Michael Ray (Sun Ra, Kool and the Gang). “Grey Skies Blue,” open hearted and then tough courtesy of a tart little riff from former Spin Doctors guitarist Anthony Krizan, subsequently howls with a country-rock optimism.

Single Room Saloon, already, had swept across an emotional gamut that most albums don’t approach in their entirety.

“Flatlands,” which quivers like the scorched horizon on a dusty highway in the American West, finds Ewing downshifting through the Saloon‘s middle section — a brave turn. He adopts this Keith Richards-ish warble on “Walk On,” a song that works at being a buck-up moment of inspiration but can’t help sounding like a reassurance for Ewing himself, after his own series of damaging issues. He’s searching, sometimes desperately, for the light in “Happiness” and then “Right Behind the Scars.” And, if only by trying, you sense that he’s getting closer.

“Bye Bye America” then leaps out with a snapping charm, even if its lyric points to a darker future. Keyboardist Ivan Neville gurgles up like an inspiration from the middle of Ewing’s chest on the John Prine-ish “The Mission,” a devastating depiction of the gap between the haves and the have nots — and maybe the record’s best track. “Marylin,” this elegiac home-going reverie, doesn’t so much put a bow on things as illustrate the inner strength that we all must have, if there is any hope in overcoming this world’s slings and arrows: “Love comes slow,” Ewing sings, “to a wounded heart.”

If you had any doubt, any doubt at all, Single Room Saloon has made the point by then.

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‘Single Room Saloon’ was available for digitial download beginning in January, and will see hard-copy release this spring.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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