Graded on a Curve:
The Gracious Losers,
Six Road Ends

The Glasgow-based The Gracious Losers are nine members strong, but for their second full-length, the lineup burgeoned to 15 bodies, and across the set’s 11 tracks, it often sounds that way. Categorized as Celtic folk/ Americana, the sound is much broader than the designation might suggest, with rock heft of a rootsy stripe in welcome evidence as they execute the impressive songwriting of Jonathan Lilley. Six Road Ends is out now on black and yellow galaxy vinyl (and standard black) through the label Last Night from Glasgow.  

Kicked up dust isn’t the first thing that springs to my mind when considering the prospects of another contemporary folk and/ or Americana record, but such a thing is possible. In an era when the objective is too often politeness and finesse, spark and edge are welcome qualities. The sheer number of Gracious Losers increases the likelihood they will deliver a record infused with grit, heft and energy, and Jonathan Lilley, Amanda McKeown, Gary Johnston, Heather Philips, Rory McGregor, Monica Queen, Johnny Smillie, Celia Garcia, and Erik Igelstrom don’t disappoint in this regard.

But the real joy of Six Road Ends derives from how it reaches far beyond the folk/ Americana baseline, and from how its rock moves eschew the hackneyed, partly through Lilley’s songs, which are well-rounded yet focused. Likewise, the playing is broad without faltering into a patchwork of styles. It’s really with repeated listens that the territory they cover is effectively driven home.

Not that the full-bodied vocal harmony in opener “Till I Go Home” isn’t striking, particularly as it’s combined with some rock thud. Now, I don’t want the reader to misapprehend the Gracious Losers as being in league with the likes of Dinosaur Jr., though come to think of it, they do share an affinity for Crazy Horse, an influence that surfaces at length during 2018’s The Last of the Gracious Losers.

It’s also heard briefly in the guitar at the start of “The Big Land,” which recalls a similar opening by Neil from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. But even better, the track redirects into a rocking Americana zone infused with soulful guy-gal vocals and splashes of organ. Then “Flood Came Down the Hill” downshifts into a gear that’s almost Bert Jansch-like before “Loath to Leave” initially suggests mellow psych of a ’70s singer-songwriter variety.

The emergence of electric piano adjusts matters somewhat toward AOR pop of the same era, though the slide guitar helps maintain the complementary psychedelic aura. The duality of voice is also a plus, and contrasts nicely with “The Accomplice.” That one’s an instrumental, at least until a little wordless singing arises in a late passage that momentarily brings Pink Floyd to mind.

“Everything Begins, Everything Ends” retains a touch of the Floydian and adds a string section, a clarinet, and more vocal soulfulness, a quality that strengthens ties to “The Fire At the Bottom of the Sea,” which swaggers a bit like a young Joe Jackson transplanted to late ’70s NYC and cutting an unadulterated slice of Big City piano rollicking Adult Pop.

The clincher is that the song has enough endearing quirks, e.g. the injection of vocal “woos,” the non-triteness of Lilley’s lyrics, and the downtrodden-edge to his delivery, that it escapes both shallow irony and facile imitation. Although too damn short, the track is a fine set-up for the clinic of backing soul put on by (I do believe) Amanda McKeown in “You Got the Reach on Me.”

Lilley also gets downright animated as the track hits an apex of Americana rock classique. That is, the Gracious Losers have drawn a few comparisons to The Band, but it’s a similarity that’s mild and fleeting, at least until closer “When I’m Feeling Better Than How I’m Feeling Now.” Before we get there, “Come When You’re Ready” exudes an Everly Brothers vibe, though it’s filtered through Gram and Emmylou and then given its own sweet spin. And for “The Lead and the Light,” the scheme gets scaled back once more for a largely solo folk showcase in the album’s penultimate spot.

The danger in Six Road Ends’ scenario would be songs that become too gussied up as the glare of sheen is mistaken for verve. Thankfully, in embracing the maximal, The Gracious Losers avoid this problem, with their latest bold and tough in all the right places and excelling through confidence and songwriting acumen.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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