Heirlooms of August provide perfect Americana soundtrack

There’s something to be said for an album that doesn’t have to try hard to be beautiful. Gorgeous finger-picked acoustic guitar, swooning slide guitar and harmonica set a tone within the first 12 seconds of the album Down At The 5-Star, and ultimately the mood doesn’t change much for the remaining 11 tracks. Of course, the lack of movement in Heirlooms of August’s sound turns out to be the perfect backdrop for its leader Jerry Vessel’s stark lyrics, most of which infuse country images with brazen descriptions of drugs and self-destructive men and women.

Knockout opener “Down At the 5-Star” gives the excellent lines, “Don’t know if it’s smoke, don’t know if it’s speed, she’s so young and pretty and I hope / She ain’t messing with black tar as she breaks my heart.” Such lines make it clear that Vessel’s sympathies lie wholeheartedly with his damaged protagonists, and part of what makes tracks like “Annabelle” so affecting is the songwriter’s willingness to turn the spyglass back on himself. Down At the 5-Star is unabashedly a lyrics album, but sometimes it’s the stories that make folk/Americana artists worth it.

If Vessel’s intimately-picked and sullenly-sung ballads sound a bit too familiar, it’s probably due to his past association with balladeer extraordinaire Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Vessel, who played bass for Red House Painters, doesn’t think twice about swiping his more famous bandmate’s singing style, but strangely, Down At The 5-Star doesn’t suffer from it. Rather, Heirlooms of August seem to pick up right where Kozelek left off on Sun Kil Moon’s early masterpieces. A line like “Mariachi music drifting through my backyard / A photograph forever etched in my mind” proves that Vessel is just as adept at scene-setting as Kozalek, or anyone working today with the palette that Vessel and Kozalek helped design in the mid-90s.

If all this seems a bit reductive of Down At The 5-Star’s charms, it’s only because Vessel himself sounds content to venture only within his comfort zone and it’s lucky that Vessel’s comfort zone is such a joy to listen to.

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