Yeah, this has to be the most challenging review I’ve ever done, but it’s also one of the most fascinating albums I’ve ever covered in my time here, and I enjoy a challenge. I’ll go ahead and say right up front, this album isn’t going to be for everyone; in some respects, it’s not quite even for me as a fan, given the darkness which permeates this record, but that’s exactly the reason it deserves discussing–because it’s so far from anything I’d typically listen to, and yet the writing and the stories and the general feeling evoked by this record still hold my attention. In many respects, it reminds me of Robyn Ludwick’s latest album, This Tall to Ride, because both projects are dark and sometimes downright disturbing, but for listeners who can get past those features, there’s a lot to appreciate in each of these albums.
The difference? Robyn sings with frankness about hookers and cocaine and paints pictures of life on the streets; you come away from that record intrigued by her ability to take the commonly accepted definition of country music that “it’s about real people” and use it to tell the stories of people often ignored by society as a whole and certainly by country music. Rod Melancon takes that definition to a much darker conclusion even than Robyn, telling us in the opening song, “With the Devil,” the story and thoughts of a serial killer. And that’s ultimately the most intriguing and arguably disturbing thing about this song and much of the album; real people do think like this, and Rod Melancon is indeed telling the stories of real thoughts experienced by real characters, even if the specifics are false. Now, I’m not saying this is a country record sonically–it’s got country touches, and a couple of country songs, but it’s mostly a rock record–but lyrically, this is what the genre was made for, to explore real stories and real emotions and perhaps evoke sympathy, or at least understanding, in the listener for the ones portrayed.
It doesn’t lighten up at all after the opener. “Perry” tells the tale of someone equally sinister, saying darkly, “ain’t nobody mess with Perry, and come out alive.” And then we are treated to the most intense moment on the whole album with “Lights of Carencro.” From the spoken word to Rod Melancon’s delivery to the production that can only be described as ominous, this song has to be the most disturbing tale I’ve heard all year. Here, the narrator tells us in sharp detail how his brother was killed in a motorcycle accident after being hit by an eighteen-wheeler. The driver carried on with his life unaffected, and the plan to exact revenge by the narrator’s dad failed. But many years later, the narrator’s brother would take his own revenge, as the driver died in a trucking accident. This is only made more intense by the fact that Melancon speaks the whole tale, and you can imagine your relative sitting across the table from you relaying the whole incident.
It does lighten up in a way after these three, in the sense that we go from sinister to melancholy. There’s “Dwayne and Me,” the story of two cousins who became friends and looked out for each other until Dwayne went off to war and never came back. There’s “Praying For Light,” where the narrator sings about watching the storm clouds build and hoping his land will still be there in the morning because he can’t afford to rebuild. There’s “Promises,” where the main character is stuck in his hometown after a knee injury in football and wishing he’d gotten to leave. It’s all very wistful, and Rod Melancon really has the right voice to pull out the desperation in these characters and make you feel what they’re experiencing. It’s a great example of a singer without a technically great voice using their tone and vocal ability to their advantage to convey emotion.
There’s one more disturbing moment on the album as well in “Different Man,” where we learn about Jimmy, a soldier who has returned home with PTSD. We hear, through the words and ever-building production, all the things going on in his head till finally it just explodes in the end. I’ll go back to the Jason Isbell song “Anxiety” here because Isbell used the angry production there to help the song, and I didn’t think it enhanced the story. I even found the outro somewhat distracting. This, however, is a good example of using the production to help tell the story, as it really adds a sense of frustration to the track, while also illustrating the lack of control Jimmy has over his own mind.
But Rod Melancon is not always dark or even depressed. WE get a nice break in the middle of the album with the fun, energetic “Redhead” that offers some balance to the project and serves to make the darker material stand out even more. “Redhead” also appears to show off more of Melancon’s personality; the other songs seem to be stories about other people, but this one seems to have more of Rod himself in it. The song also stands out because he’s singing about a hot single mom instead of your typical young girl. “Mary Lou” also adds a little variety to the record–it’s still a wistful heartbreak song, but it’s upbeat and stands out as a lighter moment on the album. Both of these songs, though not the best ones here on their own, were crucial to making Southern Gothic stand out and not just be one dark, depressing affair where the songs ran together.
So, overall, this is quite a good album. It’s going to come down to taste, I think, on your mileage with the record, but it shouldn’t be overlooked because there are some great stories here, not to mention many of them are enhanced by cool and interesting production. Rod Melancon does a fantastic job bringing life to these characters and telling the tales of people who no doubt have real-life counterparts but are nonetheless often ignored in music. If you like dark albums, you’re obviously going to enjoy this more, but I’m not someone who gravitates toward them, and this record still managed to stand out to me. I think that’s a testament to the kind of storyteller that Rod Melancon is, as well as to the fascinating listen that is Southern Gothic.