The morning dew sticks like gooey fly traps to the humid and wispy wheat fields, modulating between the gentle perk of the coffee machine and the coarse rumble of a rustic 1970s pick-up truck. Weary-eyed workers tumble out of bed “and stumble to the kitchen,” as Dolly Parton depicts famously on the classic “9 to 5,” a sprightly countrypolitan tune set against the lifestyle of blue collar men and women just trying to make a living. The sun cracks the horizon, and the Heartland population mills about restlessly, sorrow bleeding out onto gravel pops and braying moos, and an uneasiness seeps into the bone of the town’s youth, chipping away at their shimmery ambitions and wide-eyed optimism. Chester, Virginia, a scant 25 miles south of Richmond, is one of those bedroom communities, nestled in a historic railroad plot and now clawing its way through battered and harsh traditions, ever destined to be running late.
Local art and music culture, then, distributes bleak realities with brazen storytelling, an aqueduct funneling emotional heft with poetic portraits of the life, the people, the struggles, the heartache. Chester native Chris Ryan, known by his stage name Thorp Jenson, which references the popular Anchorman films, meddles in character studies, lifting attributes from personal observations and enigmatic folklore, on his self-produced debut album, Odessa. He chomps hard on blues rhythms and the romping guitar-licking style of such southern rock purveyors as Greg Allman and Townes Van Zandt, leveraging his scruffy, whiskey-soaked vocals for anguished and faded snapshots of a time gone by. “We lost all the love we had,” he ignites with “All We Have is Time,” a razor-sharp, honky-tonk ditty which serves to render his achingly heroic penmanship in life’s barbaric limelight. “I keep walking these streets, searching for something I don’t know.”
“Lost in a Moment,” wedding simple lyrics with gracefully-worn and snuggly-warm vocals, simmers on the surface, annihilating the walls guarding his heart. Jenson is at his most honest and raw and spellbinding underneath a scintillating sheen of earthy, heaving instruments, also demonstrated eloquently on the sweet lullaby “Goodnight Sunday,” an aptly somber, reflective closer. “I wrote a lot of these songs thinking about characters. It always ends up including a part of me — you can’t get away from that — but if you’re only telling your own story, you’re kind of pigeonholing yourself,” he explains, clarifying the universally detached tone of the album’s themes but carrying enough personal unrest to feel relevant and reverently colossal.
Surrounded with a spectacle of some of the finest musicians working today ⎯⎯ from drummer Dusty Ray Simmons and bassist/keyboardist Andrew Randazzo to guitarists Charles Arthur and Andrew Rapisarda and saxophonist Suzi Fischer, who also delivers haunting background harmonies ⎯⎯ Odessa plays wonderfully in it’s tighter spaces — “Seven years since the wars been done / The fire’s been out but my mind’s been gone,” he narrates a veteran’s long-awaited return from combat and his hometown’s clashing transformation — and when he lets things simply be, Jenson is enchanting. “I ain’t getting younger / Good things come as fast as they’re gone,” he reports on “The Hard Road,” depicting his tiresome journey back home from being out on the road for months at a time. Even his reworking of Modern English’s 1982 punk/new wave hit “I Melt with You” feels innovative, stripped of its metallic glaze for a more grounded and uncluttered return. He bares his heart and soul relentlessly, and the listener can’t help but be utterly hypnotized all the way through.
Grade: 3 out of 5