How the hell did I not know about Jonathan Tyler sooner? I love to convince myself I’m aware of the best country and Americana have to offer out there, but I most certainly don’t. That’s part of the excitement as a reviewer and fan of music: finding new awesome music and Jonathan Tyler is certainly a maker of awesome music. Originally Tyler was known as Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, but a lawsuit forced a name change. The band appeared to get their big break back in 2010 when they signed with Atlantic Records and their first album under the label, Pardon Me, experienced a lot of success. Unfortunately this partnership ended due to creative differences between the sides, as they wanted him to talk with a Jason Aldean producer and Tyler had no interest in compromising his vision. Now Tyler is with Thirty Tigers, home to Jason Isbell and several other talented artists in the country and Americana realms. It’s a good thing he got away from Atlantic too because we wouldn’t have gotten his new album Holy Smokes. And I like to think it’s named this because this is what you’ll say after listening to it.
The hard-hitting country rock anthem “Hallelujah” kicks off Holy Smokes. There’s plenty of electric guitar throughout this song to satiate any fans taste for it. You also find out right away that Tyler’s got a dynamic voice, allowing him to sing whatever he wants. A fast-paced and energetic song like this is the perfect song to start the album. The following song “Goin’ Down To The City” slows things down and is decidedly more country. The piano and acoustic guitar drive the sound of this song. There’s an underlying southern rock influence to the song too that gives it a laid back feeling. “Honey Pie” is a song about a man wanting a woman to accept him back into her life again. He wonders too why their love went dry in the first place, as he feels they had it all figured out some point. The lyrics and instrumentation are quite catchy and the desperation Tyler expresses in his voice as he sings really adds more of an edge to the song.
One of the highlights of the album to me is “Let It Out.” It’s a song about a man’s struggle with his internal demons and being unable to let go of a love he feels he deserves. The steel guitars throughout the song really help create a desperado state of mind in the listener, which fits perfectly with the theme of the song. Everything in this song simply works together well to make a great song. Jonathan Tyler is joined on “To Love Is To Fly” by fellow alt country singer Nikki Lane. Their voices really gel together well, as they sing this love ballad of two people falling in love. Both people realize they’re bad and great for each other, which they explain well through the song. This is another one of the high points of the album, as this song was tailor-made for a Tyler and Lane duet. Tyler shows off more of his Americana side on “California Sunshine.” The reason I say Americana is because the sound of this song is like a fusion of country, southern rock and blues. This is in a good way of course. I can’t get over how engaging and creative the instrumentation is throughout Holy Smokes. It’s one of the immediate draws of this album that will make you love it and this song is really the exemplification of it.
The most fun song of the album is hands-down “Riverbottom,” which I imagine is quite popular with live crowds. How could it not be? The high-energy guitars and pace make it easy to love. The song is about a man willing to do anything to get a woman to say she’ll be his. The chorus of the song really hooks you in and I guarantee after multiple listens it will be stuck in your head for a while. “Late Night Special” is a spacey and somewhat dark song about a woman calling up a man at late parts of the night. Or as she calls him, “Mr. Late Night Special.” I think you can infer the meaning here. The sound of this song is…I want to say weird, but it’s oddly mesmerizing at the same time. That’s about the best way I could describe it. Regardless it doesn’t matter if I can’t find the words to describe it, I just know it’s a damn good song.
Tyler collaborated with the well-known Texas singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard on “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long” and you can sense from the first listen this song is special. It’s a dark cowboy ballad about a desperado who has committed some serious crimes. He knows the consequences are going to result in his death and continues to reiterate that his time isn’t long. There’s not one thing missing from this song and is easily the best on the album and one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
“Disappear” is a song about a woman being encouraged to leave her small town and pursue her dreams in the big city or wherever she chooses. This is the type of song you can appreciate more with each listen, as the lyrics are well written and do a great job telling a story to the listener. The acoustic guitars and steel guitars combined with timely organ play in the background make for great instrumentation. In other words this is just another quality country song on an album full of them. The longest song on Holy Smokes, “Everything Was Cool in 2002,” closes the album out. It’s a smoky tune that sounds like it came straight out of New Orleans with its earthy guitar licks and organ play. It almost has a psychedelic air about it. The instrumentation in this song is absolutely flawless and the production is magnificent. It’s a strong closer to an album with very few weaknesses.
Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes is an all-around terrific album. No beating around the bush in terms of a recommendation: Go buy this album as soon as possible. It’s full of cleverly written songs, excellent instrumentation and vocals that will impress any fan of alt country and Americana. Thank whatever deity you believe in that Tyler didn’t stick with Atlantic Records and produce neutered and watered down music. We wouldn’t have gotten this brilliant and refreshing album. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year and will surely be in the running for several of Country Perspective’s year-end awards. This is alt country at it’s best.