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Recorded with an all-star band comprised of drummer Jerry Roe (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Darius Rucker), bassist Dominic Davis (Jack White, Wanda Jackson), and guitarists Brad Rice (Son Volt, Ryan Adams) and Thom Donovan (Lapush, Ruby Amanfu), the album is a prime showcase for Hoge s searing, gritty vocals, as well as his remarkable gift for crafting complex characters with real emotional depth and plainspoken profundity. Over the course of eleven tracks, Hoge weaves elements of vintage country, literate folk, and heartland rock into a passionate, genre-busting masterpiece, one that offers an unflinching portrait of the messy challenges of adulthood and the ways in which we preserve (or don't) through hard times.
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Will's always been a great writer, too, his voice simply a prime vehicle for fine songs. His melodies have always had a simplicity that sounds familiar, though always original, fresh, authentic. Which brings me to one of Will's pre-now problems: Authenticity. Back in those Handlebar days, it wasn't hard to think (and see) that Will wanted to be Springsteen; he even wore a dopey '70s-era Springsteen hat. Today, Will Hoge fully occupies Will Hoge.
In ANCHORS, you can still hear Will contemplate Springsteen or, say, Tom Petty or even (whether he himself would think of such a thing) Dave Alvin; you can still hear some Springsteen-esque stylings. (One can argue that Will should be much farther up the music-industry food chain than he is, but that's a discussion for another day.)
At the same time, though, you can also hear him being the very Will Hoge we all knew he would grow into: his authentic Will Hoge self. "Here I am with no disguise," he sings, "I see the best of me shine through baby's eyes." And through our ears, too.
On an album with just-right instrumentation and elegant production, his ninth LP since 2001, Will finally discovers and confesses the very vulnerability we all need to find in our journey toward maturity and authenticity. Take "Angels Wings," the ninth of 11 tracks. In it, he delivers a redemption-packed admission that he's "tired of fighting this war with myself." Not only do the lyrics showcase Will's poetic talents, they also show us just how much Will has grown up, compiling "a laundry list of my mistakes in all my dirty clothes":
"I guess I don't have much to show
for all the things I've done,
but I still think there's better days to come
If I had angels wings, would I even leave the ground?
If I had a ladder up, would I climb or fall back down?
How many chances do I get to turn it all around?"
His appropriately titled ANCHORS -- appropriate because he seems to, finally, be anchored -- adds considerable heft to his stout catalog, which includes major-label releases that Allmusic.com shows with reviews of least 3 1/2-star reviews, most with more stars. To answer that last question, yes, he keeps finding and creating more chances to "turn it all around."
As a whole, ANCHORS is a bit like one of his live shows. The record starts off with easygoing, even gentle, stripped-down tunes, building up to bolder songs with even bolder instrumentation, including horns.
In a word, Will's latest studio effort shows the same promise he shares in all of his hopeful, hard-earned, much-deserved optimism, even in the hurting'ist songs -- recorded and live.
"Sweeter days ahead," he sings, "I can taste it, taste it."
I can hear it already.