One historical glance over the musical landscape of Charleston, SC reveals much the same as its coastal geography; it has been one of cresting waves and ebbing lows. Much like the breakers of Folly Beach, Charleston has had its periods of high points and low points. As a daily observer, dare I say the scene is once again cresting and riding that wave is a bevy of bright-eyed, local talent.
Songwriting scene staple, Ryan Bonner has added another album to the Charleston collective with his latest full-length, Only When It’s Burning. The 13-track album highlights Bonner’s songwriting prowess and Alt Country leanings, but also features arguably his most star-studded lineup yet. While Bonner’s full time band certainly make the record, he had the opportunity to team with Nashville session artists the likes of Sean O’Bryan Smith (Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban) and Steve Holley (Wings, Elton John) with production and engineering duties falling to Joe Taylor at his Bennetts Point, Salt Creek Recording.
Opening to the anecdotal “Tommy Walker” the slightly Country-spiked track portends the album sound. With picked acoustic and electric strum over sweeping organ blasts; this mid-tempo rocker ushers Bonner’s rasp/twang vocals to the foreground of the track. Mandolin strum, weepy slide electric and bouncing bass line hallmark the instrumentation of “The Rapture” while clever lyrical matter belies the “end of the world” ethos of the track. Ready for radio, I smell this as initial album single and expect to hear this in regular rotation on local stations. “House of Rusted Gold” takes the album in a slightly dour direction as it builds from the intro to verse. Rat-a-tat snare, strum acoustic and honk electric fills open this one while an undercurrent of keys lay just beneath the melody. Instrumentally, this one evoked a nostalgia feel until I realized it could easily be a long lost Dire Straits B-side. Bonner even channels vintage Knopfler in the vocal delivery. Dirge organ and vocal delivery overlap to open “Walking In Circles” until demure acoustic strum, banjo plucks and slight percussion join the fold. Fans will recognize this one from 2011’s, Think of England, reworked and featuring backing vocals from Jordan Trotter. Melodic acoustic note work opens “Ballad Of The Madman” before the track builds to full Alt Country-twinge rocker. Again, the highlight here is the lyrical matter and the accompanying vocal delivery, bolstered at the chorus by backing vox, swirling keys and tight instrumentation.
Being well versed in Bonner’s work (both studio albums and live performances) I can undoubtedly proclaim this is his most “complete” album to date and illustrates his evolving as songwriter and artist. Surrounding himself with the right people certainly left a mark on this album in that it is pristine and technically tight without sounding cooked in any post-production voodoo. He admitted the recording process was farther removed from his usual approach and while he remains dedicated to the DIY-process, that removal has served him especially well on these 13 tracks. And despite the decisions that were made in process (Full-length instead of EP; reworked past tracks) this is an album with a clear vision and the final product is testament of the dedication to it.
by Chris West – firstname.lastname@example.org
I give this 3.5/5 Skopes.