I met Chris Ross briefly after a benefit concert in Bangor, Maine, on the Fourth of July 2012. It was well worth the wait in a hard seat and enduring the other acts to see him play. Suffice it to say, that my first listen made me want to hear more.
Ross is a singer-songwriter from Coastal Maine with a voice made for acoustic guitar, more dirt road than gravel, never sliding off to twang, and sharply honest . The studio arrangements on The Steady Stumble are often sparse, showcasing his writing talent. In a very informal email exchange, I asked Ross how he writes. He shared, “I’ve done almost all of my writing in the winter months, after dark, by the woodstove. I wrote The Steady Stumble in a 3 month period in the winter of 09/10 after an extra shitty breakup.” I had to smile – all that heartache was over one breakup?
When asked about musical influences, he listed several, including Springsteen, The Band, James Taylor, Gregg Allman, as well as contemporaries Jason Isbell and Dawes. Often compared to Ray LaMontange, Ross shared “Ray LaMontagne changed my life the first time I heard him. I was already a lifetime fan before I ever knew he had Maine connections. He’s my John Lennon.”
I saved the CDs Ross gave me for a few days until I could sit down and really listen and let them seep in. I knew I’d want to squeeze the ache out of them. If you like an artist capable of singing to your memories, your sensibilities, and taking you along a journey of vignettes, listen up.
The Steady Stumble is the 2011 release for Chris Ross, his debut effort.
Recorded and Balanced by: Ben Strano at The Hat Factory VI.
Produced by Jack Sundrud
Chris Ross- acoustic guitar, vocals, words
Pat Buchanan- electric guitar, harmonica
Tammy Rogers- viola
Lee Holland- percussion, acoustic guitar
Jack Sundrud- bass guitar
Photo Credits- Natasha Merchant
Track by Track:
Singin’ to Find You
Everything starts right here with the biggest elements of this CD – Ross’s voice and songwriting ability. Ross’s voice effortlessly allows him to offer his lyrics without sentimentality but never without heart or connection. It must be the storyteller gene often found in Maine men. He sings “since I was a kid on the edge of my bed strumming along and scribbling lead and trying to find you.” This is a gentle opener to the CD, and it feels like the logical place to begin.
Remember when life kicked you off your pedestal and rubbed you around in the dirt? You will after this tune. Fun and a bit dark, this is greedier musically, and heats up with well-placed percussion to spread the message. Ross twists the language around common royal cultural icons, bending them into a storyline.
“What’s the hurry, Mama? Take your time when you’re breaking my heart. …The hardest part of sorrow is knowing she ain’t feeling it too…oh, no, but she might be.” Love’s gone wrong, and the sound of steel guitar echoes a heart being ripped open. Ross sure can sell the feeling.
From the opening chords, it is clear that this is a song full of hazy, dreamy, desolate proportions of the heart. I’m not much of a romantic, but I enjoy hearing Ross squeezing out the emotion it takes to talk about romance, or lack thereof, without the usual cliché goo. Teasing, the rhythm builds, and builds, and opens subtly, but remains held down in a pile of angst and reality, never finding full release – pretty much just like life.
The Right Thing
Not a happy song, acoustic with a touch of electric, full of smoky torment, this song is lament with a dash of hope. This song reminds me of all those words that need to be said when no one wants to say them but someone needs to hear them…even when that someone is done listening.
Ross’s images, bits and pieces of life easily ignored, are front and center, New Years, dirty jeans on the floor, hand grenades. This song takes twists, turns, from lament to the future, soft to more energy, explanation to expectation.
Just Like the Ocean
Another song of interesting images and composition, Ross has added a fuller sound with violin to build ebb and flow. Subtly, yes, just like the ocean, the lyrics and music rise and fall to a dreamy effect, embedding a simple, timeless quality in this song.
All the Way Down
This isn’t a song, it is a screenplay. Stuffed full of the darker shades of life in our fair state of Maine, this tale may be ripped from one of many headlines, sadly, but he isn’t sentimental. Ross is intelligent and clean, right down to the bone. I like that about his style. There is no whine with the desolation, just expression of how it is, straight up.
Grew Up Young
Electric twang opens, making way for harmonica, a bit of well-played profanity, whiskey, and dope, switchback lyrics, and interesting changes in intensity and rhythm. I would never accuse Ross of being country, but he works the best elements of the genre to add depth and interest to his work. I can hear the train coming ‘round the bend…
Did I say Ross has tremendous ability to embrace, twist, and lash the English language into thoughtful, liberating lyrics? “Now I’m ticking in place, talking in circles again. Crawling ever after towards a happy end. I can see her leaving right in her smiling eyes. I can see me bleeding right in her smiling eyes.” Maybe English class would be more effective if accompanied by an acoustic guitar.
Stay a Little Longer
A road song full of driving home past memories gathered, wondering the what-ifs that creep in as the miles crawl. “I kill the engine at the old White farm with the big sunflower on the barn. I knew a girl there once. She was old and wise, had a Traveler’s soul and a grandma’s smile. And it’s one of those things you can’t take back, never saying a thing. You should have said stay a little longer…” If you can’t hear the tires and smell the damp coming off the road when you listen to this, you, my friend, need to buy a pack of Marlboro Reds, roll down the window, and take a road trip yourself. Head out past the highway and watch for deer.
Wrapping up, I’ll add just a couple of things. Ross shared this about his writing: “The language I use is mostly the language I speak in, I try to walk that line of intimate specificity, while keeping the subjects relate-able. It’s tough sometimes. The only thing worse than being a completely simple and boring writer is being an overly verbose and complicated one.” Keep it up, it’s working. This isn’t music easily absorbed, classified, and catalogued after a couple of listens. Returning to the music again and again over the last few weeks, I’m struck by something new each time.
And finally, the best thing about The Steady Stumble? Chris Ross is just getting started.
Update: Bluebird Reviews just posted a wonderful review of Chris Ross: Halfway to Wonderland which can be found here.