Review of Beyond the Pale (Paradigm Records) by Stanton Swihart

Beyond the Pale is the sort of album that musically seems to disappear into the atmosphere of the bar it might be playing at, but which actually defines and shapes that atmosphere. It demands close scrutiny, especially lyrical scrutiny. The bent is decidedly rootsy and country-rockish, but Hendersonseems more influenced by Bob Dylan (and, consequently, Woody Guthrie) than his commercial country-pop brethren, which is not to say that he eschews pop altogether. Beyond the Pale is full of melodies with teeth that are much more distinctive than they first seem. Though sneaky, there are plenty of hooks on the album, but they are hooks that necessitate repeated listening before they begin to sink in. The playing is not at all plodding, but assured and easy. Twangy, reverbed, electric guitars are superimposed over finger-picked acoustic guitars. Accordian pops up on "Flatlands" and "Wash It Away," and there is occasional mandolin and banjo touches. The album would sit comfortably beside (or at least nearby) efforts by the Wallflowers and John Mellencamp. Henderson displays a lyrical and melodic acuity (as well as a melancholy streak) similar to Jakob Dylan (check out the wonderful "Bone Tired"), while his themes are pure country desolation and grief, filled with nowhere towns where nothing happens, drunken nights, and ill-fated relationships. "Speed Rack" features the sort of weezing organ you here on mid-'60s Dylan albums courtesy of Al Kooper, and includes the immortal couplet, "I've never loved another woman/but then again I don't love you," which goes a long way in setting the general mood of the album. The loneliness of the characters about which Henderson writes have empty spaces in their lives that have been there so long they have become permanent, holes that cannot be peopled no matter how hard they try to make human connections. Sadness is inevitable in this world. Henderson's warble, caught half-way between Dylan and Mark Knopfler, adds a world-weary quality to the music that is real and sincere. Yet, as bleak as it may seems and as powerfully as those themes resonate, there is also a sense on Beyond the Pale that Henderson is turning country cliches on their head, making playful jest of "my-woman-left-me-and-my-dog-died" stereotypes. The music is not overtly gloomy, though it is certainly moody. Yet it is a moodiness that lets listeners in, if not to make them share that feeling than at least to help them understand it.