For some reason which I can’t explain in a logical, structured fashion, I’ve always correlated country music with travels. Daylight travel, to be precise. However, the music of Actual Wolf feels nocturnal. In previous reviews of him, I’ve described it as the late night AM radio we would get from the USA down here in Mexico, if the weather conditions were right. From the rough and tumble troubadour approach of his first EPs, to the sleek Faded Days, it was night music. Perfect for late night writing binges, or the common homework marathon grading. Many students failed differential calculus to ‘Kerosene & Spark’, I can say that fer sure.
Hometown hero breaks from this tradition as being a diurnal affair. It’s right there, in the opening track ‘A change of mind’: your morning routine derailed by a heartbreaking letter and lonesome, strong cup of coffee. Following the good ole tradition of Country, the majority of themes splayed through the album’s sweet runtime are of hearts, souls, and minds in troubled situations. ‘Angie’, ‘Going through’, ‘Missing you’ are sorrowful tracks that continue pulling on those yearning emotions still buried in the back shed of your heart. ‘Birthday party’ surges with an everlasting sadness that tarnishes a celebration. It’s a known feeling: that moment of realization that another year passed, another goal -or set of goals- went unaccomplished. Pour another rye, light up, and go back to the dance floor. Next year might be better.
Some of these heartfelt tunes are about a city and not a significant other. In this case, it’s Oakland. ‘Back in Oakland’ goes for a T. Rex styled tribute, a summary of all those tiny details from a city that bring a tear -or two- to your eye, with flashy reminiscences fading like brass instruments.
In fact, it’s the brass instruments what really give Hometown Hero an extra push. ‘Sinaloa Stroll’ was one of the first tracks released for this album and I gotta be honest: I had a hard time understanding its role in this album. But the darn thing grew on me and it makes a lot of sense when you listen to Hometown Hero. ‘Sinaloa stroll’ mirrors it’s placing in the tracklist with ‘Fruitvale and Foothill’, the antepenultimate track that has that “seventh inning stretch” spirit. Think of a long ass party. Everyone is tired, there’s a couple of hamstrung revelers who drown their sorrows with vodka sevens and straight rye. Still, spirits are up, and that second wind Billy Joel sang about makes everyone peppy, for one last long dance, until the houselights come on and thrifty guests have “liberated”* centerpieces from the tables.
2020 was brutal to all of us. On personal and work levels, everything went down the drain. One of the worst hit areas was the brittle independent musician scene. Without a major label to fall back on (and that’s a stretch!), a year of little to no touring and measly payments from streaming meant that particular sector was hobbled. In a way, Hometown Hero will remain a testament of that horrible year that will make us wistfully sigh. A sweet missive to broken hearts everywhere.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López
*Might be a Mexican thing: leave no centerpiece behind!