Americana UK: Steve Hartsoe “Gaslighted” (Independent, 2020)

Steve Hartsoe’s new EP, ‘Gaslighted’, comes straight through the front door without opening it, not bothering to knock or wipe its feet. The vocals are as gritty as they come, the solos on the money and this is a fine example of blues rock-influenced Americana.  The vocals are mixed just right and rather than just hearing that impressive voice as no more than a grunt, the fate of many a similar vocalist, you can actually hear the words. 

Comparisons are made with Tom Petty and Ryan Adams which are not wholly misplaced but ultimately Hartsoe doesn’t have that slinky, catchy insidiousness of so much of Petty’s best work (‘Breakdown‘?), it’s too raw for that.  Nor does he have the high-quality lyrics of Adams; well at his best anyway.  It’s no bad thing to not quite match two icons of the genre and perhaps the best way to put it is that Hartsoe sounds very much like himself. Having fronted late 80’s alt-rock band London Down Hartsoe also has a career as a solo artist and, ‘Gaslighted‘, is the latest iteration of that aspect of his work. 

So, gaslighting, a commonplace in the language today with its arch exponent Mr Trump and his ability to manipulate and sow seeds of doubt in relation to commonly understood facts.  It’s a term that derives from a stage production and subsequent mid-1940’s film about a man who sets out to persuade his wife that she is mad.  Judging by the comments on Hartsoe’s website he believes that the current American administration has been lacking in it’s response to Covid-19 and although there seems to have been a degree of petty politicking everywhere it has been lamentably so in his homeland.  Central to gaslighting is the trashing of those who actually know something about the subject in hand – as opposed to those lighting the gas. 

‘Canyon Song‘ recounts Hartsoe’s premonition that something bad was coming, and he and members of his family did eventually succumb to the virus though thankfully all are now recovered. ‘When truth becomes a suggestion / And the life you save might be your own’. 

Perhaps the most straightforward of the three remaining tracks, ‘How This Ends’, recounts another lost relationship.   Whilst it may be heartfelt there are few original insights, ‘Well she’s gone and everything around me fades / Now I’m down and I got no one else to blame’ 

‘Crooked Crown’, starts with a nod to Uncle Tupelo and whilst it could be construed as another song of powerless disenfranchisement comments in the artist’s biography suggest it might be a ‘facetious bro-country track’.  It’s not quite clear what’s meant by that and it would hardly chime with anything else I have read about Hartsoe.  While the plight of the modern everyman has been written about at length (and the book was probably closed by McMurtry’s, ‘We Can’t Make it Here Anymore’) it is none the less a lamentable state of affairs that whilst money talks ordinary people are increasingly silenced and marginalised, ‘Just 9-5 he never made a sound / Corporate king said it’s my world now’. 

Too right – it’s been said before but there’s no reason not to say it again. The final track and the only one not self-penned is,’Best Friend’, which also seems to ponder the idea that things can be different and better. ‘We’ll ride the neon highway / Until we rule this silent town’ 

If the boat has been missed or misunderstood somewhere along the line with the lyrics it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a fine set of tunes, well played, well sung and recommended on that basis.

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