Day 17 of the #mayvinylchallenge asks for a guilty pleasure. I get the intent, but not the connotation: if you really enjoy something, do it unreservedly. There’s no room for guilt when there’s so much darkness out there; why hide your joy with something behind inane clichés like “guilty pleasure”? But I can understand sharing something that seems out of the ordinary from what you’re typically known for liking, especially when it comes to music. So let’s talk about how much I love Vol. 2, the second record from Radio Company, which too many people might pass by thinking it simply a vanity project from television star/heartthrob/mancrush Jensen Ackles except…damn, it’s so good.
Full disclosure: ever since getting hooked on Supernatural, my wife and I have both become Jensen Ackles stans. So whether it’s supporting his brewery or picking up his debut with Steve Carlson my wife is usually first in line. And the first Radio Company album was fine, if slightly underwhelming. Ackles has a great presence and voice, and he and Carlson can certainly write a tune, but at least for me, someone who was still feeling his way through the country genre and finding his footing it was a mild, enjoyable record that didn’t hold my attention.
So you can imagine my shock when we first put on Vol. 2. The jump in quality around the songwriting is astounding. Opener “All My Livin Time” cross that line from country to blues-drenched rock with some real smooth soul in thr backing vocals. Sure it’s a standard blueprint for this kind of song, but Ackles’s vocals, combined with Carlson’s (they trade lead) really work here, and there accompany organ and copious guitar solos bring out a vibrancy that was missing from the previous album.
That secret weapon – the great blend of Ackles and Carlson’s vocals – is put to perfect effect on one of my favorite tracks of the album, “Quarter To”. Muted acoustic strumming serves as the background to a striking harmonized lead vocal that showa growing complexity and willingness to experiment and it pay off beautifully here. It’s a lovely song, and sometimes you just need a little bit of lovely to put the day to right. It’s the same with “Dead to Rights” – perhaps my wife’s favorite song on the album. Ackles and Carlson bring in harps, strings, and backward passages to add some unexpected surprises to the song, and it’s a potent combination when taken with the vocal melody and catchy chorus.
As drawn as folks will be to the slower, more acoustic numbers there’s plenty to hold onto in the rock department, with the soul-streaked blues of “Truly Forgotten” a personal favorite. But even more mellow feel good tracks like “Any Way That You Want Me” have quirks in the arrangements that stick. It also helps that this truly feels like a band effort. Ackles is more than happy to hand the reins over to Carlson, and when he takes the lead the songs are just as exciting, just as alive as everything else.
So yeah: you’re be sorely mistaken to this this nothing more than the scratching of an itch for Ackles. Radio Company and Vol.2 prove that narrow minded categorization is for the birds, and there’s no such thing in music as a guilty pleasure.
There is only pleasure, and when we chance upon we should revel in the opportunity.