Chad King has the kind of voice other singer/songwriters surely dream of. While always sounding unique, King is able to change his voice to suit his song, sounding as comfortable in his country-infused tracks as moody singer/songwriter numbers, up-beat rockers, and even jazz- or folk-influenced songs. He’s to be commended, however, that he doesn’t fall prey to indecision, becoming a musical doppelganger in changing styles at a whim. This album remains cohesive, despite its variety of influences and musical direction, and while some of that is based on its theme, most is based on King’s songwriting sensibilities.
The theme of Well, Hell, King’s second solo album (he’s also the frontman of the slow-core-esque NYC band Hula), centers around women. With each of the 11 songs bearing a female’s name, it’s hard to say if Well, Hell is King’s ode to women he’s loved and lost or merely a narrative tied together by the women who flow throughout. Because there’s love songs here, songs of loss, and optimistic songs of hope, and they help the album feel cohesive even while King’s styles flow from song to song.
The album opens with one of its most striking tracks, the incredibly rich “Alma,” which has a deep sheen of reverb and studio effects to give it a slightly echoed, chiming quality. “Cecile” shows his country influences, using pedal steel to give the song a unique twang while still flowing along a gorgeous Nick Drake-ish style. Banjo brings out that sound on “Sandy,” and female vocals offer a moving accompaniment. The vocal style on “Angela” could stand up with the vocalists of decades come and gone, clearly shining on this track that feels like it could be an old standard.
The dark and rich “Heather” is a highlight, a stark and quietly evocative number that adds in some electric guitar (and well-placed whistling). On “Maria,” King infuses his song with a dark country feel that perfectly incorporates strings into the mix, perhaps bringing to mind artists like Calexico or Black Heart Procession, and “Naiomi” startles with a slow-paced but highly moving track deep with feeling. The album closes with another stand-out, the stark “Estelle,” which seems to strip off the studio sheen from King’s voice, showing a more world-weary feel that diminishes its effectiveness not a bit.
King is a highly effective and endearing singer/songwriter who has managed to fly under the radar, perhaps because he’s not simply aping the style of forerunners like Elliott Smith. Instead, he has his own style, his own powerful and evocative voice, and he uses it effortlessly, spinning lovely and moving songs with grace and passion. Here’s hoping he finds a wider audience to enjoy these songs.