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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
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Phil
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Whatever Happened To Your Loving Heart
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Phil is kind of a strange name for a country singer, not really on the same continuum with Lyle and Waylon and Hank, suggesting instead a little more eccentricity and urban irony than your typical red-state crooner. And, in fact, these nine songs from Akron/Family colleague Phil Weinrobe occupy country space mostly as a jumping-off point. These soft, low-key country tunes erupt into experimental chaos; stringed instruments swing from rich, vibrato tones to crazily vertiginous slides and squeaks, and lyrics wander absent-mindedly away from well-established themes into odd back alleys and metaphors. "Sucker" for instance, starts the album in world-weary style, a strummed acoustic, a twanging pedal steel, underlying Weinrobe's gently breathed lyrics. Yet mid-track, there's a crazed string breakdown, all squeak and spiraling drone as fingers slide up and down the high strings in chaotic frenzy. It's a sound that instantly breaks the songs in half, not just here but in the otherwise traditional "Backdoor." These breaks don't alter the fact that Phil's songs are deeply felt, achingly simple, lovingly polished country tracks, but they add an intriguing discord to the package... everything after you hear them seems a little weirder, a little less constrained by form than what came before them.

All four members of Akron/Family make appearances on this skewed country album, with guitarist/singer Ryan Vanderhoof co-producing the CD and co-writing the string-embellished, glockenspiel-accented "Bourbon Love," Dana Janssen playing drums and Seth Olinsky contributing the wild guitar breakdown in the middle of "Joke's on Me." Yet, despite similarities — the willingness to intercut traditional songwriting with unusual sounds, the warm harmonies — Whatever Happened to Your Loving Heart is a whole different experience from either Akron/Family album.

The music's center is in Phil's singing and lyrics, subtly enhanced but never secondary to instrumental accompaniment. He has a wonderfully warm, frayed and tattered voice, crinkled like old jeans, worn soft in spots with disappointment and weariness, but instantly comfortable and familiar. The lyrics, too, are direct, simple and endearingly eccentric, shot through with longing and regret. The verse to "Backdoor" evokes the singer's emptiness when his ex returns, the closed-off-ness of small towns and the unacknowledged loneliness that so many people feel but can't express in elemental one- and two-syllable words. For example, "If you come around/ Back to this old ghost town/ With 10,000 things on your mind/ Take off your boots/ Leave them in the hall/ Some things are better left behind/ And the back door's for leaving so nobody knows/ The front door's for making ordinary life into a show."

Around Phil's voice, a web of traditional country sounds is spun, with melancholy pedal steel and nostalgic bursts of strings. There are stately acoustic-guitar-strummed rhythms and straight-up snare-beated drums, and ethereally pretty harmonies. There's a giant, barroom chorus at the end of "The Happy Song" that might remind you of Akron/Family's "Awake." And then, every so often, there's something weirder, something that doesn't quite fit into the Neil Young-to-Byrds continuum, that hints at forms broken and clichés turned inside out — and that is, finally, what makes this album so interesting.


by Jennifer Kelly




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