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Andy Adams whittles thoughtful folk angles on quaint but sturdy new record

Andy Adams' new album, "Back to Square One."
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Andy Adams is a mild-mannered man of sparing words, the kind of guy who won’t fill a silence for its own sake. On his new album, Back to Square One, the Oklahoma singer-songwriter uses this to his advantage as he navigates the complexities of day-to-day life through song.

Approachable and thoughtfully efficient, the mostly acoustic album walks in the quaint space between a stripped-down solo and full band approach, choosing to invoke drums, bass, and/or electric guitar only as necessary. This allows Adams to maintain a consistent sound with relatively few musicians while still offering a good breadth of tone under the folk/Americana umbrella.

The songs on Back to Square One tend to adhere to a theme of trying and carrying on in life, whether it be getting through a rough patch, dealing with awry plans, or maintaining relationships.

Some of these tunes are solemn, like the dark, pedal-steel-haunted “Wolves”, while others laugh along, as in the brief and witty jingle of “A Thanksgiving Song”. Adams is a versatile arranger, and he flexes his musical instincts to great effect on the new record.

He is also a solid songwriter and performer, but he takes the opportunity to share the spotlight on his biggest release to date. His acclaimed musician friends include Kyle Reid, Carter Sampson, and John Calvin Abney, all of whom keep their parts as understated as Back to Square One tends to be.

The 14-track collection includes a number of covers and a few co-writes as well, which leaves only half of the album to be sole original material from Adams himself. The rest opts to show off fellow Oklahoma songwriting talent from the likes of Levi Parham, Derek Paul, Cody Ingram, and more. Even so, everything runs through the filter of Andy Adams’s musical perspective.

“Dancing Alone”, for example, is an unreleased Kyle Reid number that also happens to be one of Adams’s best songs on the album. It retains hints of Reid’s sensibilities while fitting perfectly in Adams’s world thanks to a soft, leisurely pace and unassuming performances from the two lead vocalists.

This is a definite highlight of the album, a reflection on spending a New Year’s Eve out with friends, but with no significant other. Being a pre-existing song, it’s likely that “Dancing Alone” was written for one voice, but Adams makes a smart choice in performing it as a duet with Carter Sampson. They don’t harmonize, and neither one is particularly front and center. The duet is more like two solo performances, which plays smartly to the song’s concept of isolation while brilliantly bringing it into the album’s repertoire of relationship dynamics manifested through further duets with Sampson.

There are plenty of other highlights as well. “If You Can Still Dance with It” is a lightweight, piano-tinged meditation on the persistence of dreams and passage of time that erupts into an unexpected guitar solo at one point.

One of the record’s most jovial tunes is “Bluebirds/Bears”, which pairs a rare outside instrument–the faint glisten of a glockenspiel–to pair with the arrangement’s sprightly ivory-tickling. Both help accentuate the song’s peppy take on hopeless romanticism.

“Darker Days” is one of the most forthcoming about the plight of the working musician, which is a running theme in the album. Given that Adams has gone on record as hoping to support his family through music one day, the song takes on a personal resonance even though the actual events recounted are those of its writer, Blake Lankford. It also has one of the album’s most bare-bones arrangements with just guitar-picking and minimal piano to support Adams’s soft voice.

“Two Long Days” is fittingly one of the longer cuts, and it’s a slow burn tale of a couple reeling from a presumed fight after two days of not seeing each other. Two of its latter lines encapsulate a lot of what Back to Square One is about: “They say patience helps get us through almost anything / But we’re tired of waiting for the virtues that don’t come”

Though there are many upbeat moments on the album, the simple fact that Adams’s slower and darker songs have longer runtimes leaves the overall impression to be far more moody than whimsical.

The album is bookended by two songs that entrench the general theme of trying, falling short and trying again. The closer is “I’ll Try Harder Next Time”, and the opener is “Back to Square One”, the title track. One could theoretically listen to the album on repeat, making the 14-track experience not just a song cycle, but a song circle.

For all of his thoughtfulness to detail, though, Andy Adams is so humble that his workmanship takes multiple listens to catch. Even with the more boisterous Kyle Reid as collaborator and producer, the record is a sleeper of a success. At first pass, Back to Square One is most notable simply for how reserved it is. On further listening, though, the silences begin to speak, and then they begin to resonate.

Back to Square One will probably only appeal to those already tuned in to the inner shades of folk music, but for such thoughtful listeners, it is a great manifesto for things to come in the OKC musician’s career.

In the studio, Andy Adams aims not to be a salesman, but a fine craftsman. In the trades of classic song, arrangement, delivery, collaboration, and album flow, he is a quality worker. On this, his most focused effort to date, he proves that there is not only virtue in discretion but also nuance to be found in the oft untaken opportunities within music’s essential workings.

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Evan Jarvicks

Evan Jarvicks was born in 1873 in the territory later to become Oklahoma. Since accidentally ...

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