Riding on a wave of nostalgic innocence, Will Hoge makes a poignant move to capture the heartland sound with his all guns firing new album SMALL TOWN DREAMS. Maybe this choice of metaphor is a touch ironic when matched up against the track ‘Guitar or a Gun’ where Hoge debates this interesting conundrum in a powerful piece. This track sits prominently alongside a bunch of explicitly themed heart on your sleeve songs leading Hoge into the style territory of Springsteen and Mellencamp. This spirted rousing album moves swiftly to fill the blue collar rock void with a view to posturing for some post bro-country momentum within country music.
What Hoge does bring to the table is acres of literalist sentiment amongst plenty of writing ripe with gritty realism. It may be a well-worn path of familiar notions, and slightly formulaic in parts, but there is enough honesty within the driving rock for this album to be a rewarding and enjoyable listen. Part of the appeal is a touch of British urban escapism, a common thread for the popularity of a lot of Americana music especially from a writing perspective. Hoge is recognised as a leading songwriter by both his peers and critics alike and this latest album, his 10th since 1997, is another chance to re-establish him as a pre-eminent performer as well.
As well as the track mentioned in the introduction (luckily a decision not applicable in the UK), the other song attracting early attention is the memorably titled ‘Little Bitty Dreams’. This poignant and well-written song resonates with sheer sentiment and while possibly inviting criticism for being over dramatic does manage to reside in credible territory. The album’s title, technically also its theme, is taken from a chorus line in the unashamedly patriot ‘Middle of America’, where common folk and their ilk are championed enthusiastically.
In almost a contrast to the recently lauded records exploring the many small town issues, this album remains staunchly positive and upbeat, whilst making casual references to life’s problems. This is probably best exemplified in the honest rocker ‘Desperate Times’. Throughout all eleven tracks, Hoge’s vocals retain an air of worn warmth and they are given a slither of backing harmony support in the partially soulful ‘The Last Thing I Needed’.
If the album kicks into action with an ode to proud nostalgia in ‘Growing Up Around Here’, it certainly signs off in fine style with a rollicking bout of no regrets in ‘Till I Do It Again’. In fact multiple plays of the record re-enforce the tub thumping anthems and themes such as in ‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To’, just another example of where Hoge leaves implicit song writing to others.
On an album which is equally perfectly crafted for its live airing as its recorded format, ‘Better Than You’, with plenty of vocal fillers, is the leading candidate best positioned to make the transition from studio to venue. You could also make a case for ‘Just Up The Road’ as its piano led rock ballad vibes allow for a smidgeon of atmospheric variety before the song explodes into a concoction of spiralling guitar solos. ‘All I Want Is Us Tonight’ completes the full album and perhaps struggles to make an impact amongst its strong counterparts, despite further serious rock pretensions.
It will be interesting to see where this album fits and whether it permeates into some form of radio play. It is certainly a major push in that direction and has the potential to accrue plenty of active listeners. From a personal perspective, SMALL TOWN DREAMS succeeds in its clarity of direction, message and delivery, whilst managing to be a thoroughly entertaining listen. The added bonus is Will Hoge is set to tour the UK with the record in September.