Many of you probably know Nick 13 as the singer, guitarist and founder of the California-based psychobilly punk trio Tiger Army. Just as I have wondered what the golden-voiced, guitar-slingin’ frontman has been up to since the band’s last release in 2007, Music from Regions Beyond, I have little doubt that a good many of Tiger Army’s other fans have also sought answers to similar questions in recent years. And the answer has come, finally, in the way of a self-titled solo debut by Nick 13 on Sugar Hill Records.
Unlike the Tiger Army’s sound, which is a combination of modern American psychobilly and punk rock and old school rockabilly and Americana, Nick 13’s solo material explores roots music in a purer and more traditional sense, going all the way back to post-Depression hillbilly and honky tonk music, as well as a self-designed form of music which borrows bits and pieces from the early country of the ’40s all the way up to the more recent outlaw country of the ’60s and ’70s. Bascially, he took the sound he has long cultivated with Tiger Army, dropped the rock and kept the billy. And also unlike Tiger Army’s sound, Nick 13’s solo material is strictly acoustic so as to stay true to the vintage American music that inspired this endeavor, and no doubt to prove that genuine roots music has not faded away altogether.
Now, the elements that make Nick’s solo debut a wholly new artistic vision for him, though not entirely absent, were only hinted at slightly here and there in Tiger Army’s four full-length studio releases, with a few Western ballads, Sun Records style rockabilly pieces of music, hillbilly and punk hybrids, and a roots rock songs. One of the best examples of one of these songs is the rather popular “Outlaw Heart” from the band’s 1999 self-titled full-length debut. In later albums there were others, and out of those songs there happened to be two specific ones, such were their classic country potential, that Nick reworked and rerecorded them for his new solo release — “In the Orchard” and “Cupid’s Victim” (both off of 2001’s Power of Moonlight album on Hellcat Records).
Initially Nick started penning the songs for this album in Los Angeles; until he hit somewhat of a figurative wall, that is, at which point the writing wasn’t going so well. To remedy the songwriting obstacles in front of him, he journeyed to from the Southwest to the Southeast, temporarily settling in Nashville, Tennessee. Of course, anyone who knows anything about country music knows that Nashville has a rich history of bands and singer/songwriters, venues, record labels, and music. The trip helped him tremendously, enough that he was able to start writing afresh and get a good deal done, and then return to L.A. to finish the project, at last.
For the recording of his solo material, Nick enlisted a handful of notable musicians to join him in the studio, where they assisted in filling out the sound, and with making the compositions a bit more elaborate. First he brought in Greg Leisz (Wilco, Lucinda Williams) and James Intveld to co-produce the album, which resulted in the recording process being done primarily in analog rather than in digital. In the Nashville, when it was time to undergo the recording process, Nick received studio time with steel guitarist Lloyd Green, whose masterful playing captures perfectly the fluid beauty of the instrument and complements Nick’s song structures remarkably well. Other artists that appear on the recording are Josh Grange (Dwight Yoakam, K.D. Lang, Dixie Chicks), Mitch Marine (Dwight Yoakam), Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Eddie Perez (Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks), and so on. Needless to say, this album features contributions from some of California’s and Nashville’s most respected musical heavyweights.
While the entire album is very good, there are a few exceptional tracks that deserve mention above the others. Those songs are “Nashville Winter,” “101,” “Restless Moon,” “Someday,” and “Gambler’s Life.” And of course it is interesting to listen to how the two Tiger Army songs are adapted to agree with the sound of the rest of the album.
It is a bittersweet sound that Nick 13 owns as a solo artist, at once both sorrowful and joyous, dark and illuminated. And the lyrical content follows suit with lines regarding pangs of loneliness and romantic longing, autobiographical bits and subtle confessions, road weary musings and the strange out-of-place sensation one gets from being away from home for too long.
You needn’t be Tiger Army fans appreciate this solo effort by Nick 13, though Tiger Army fans will undoubtedly find a good deal to like in the ten songs on the album. Nor do you need be a fan of traditional roots and classic country music to enjoy it, for while those things are the focus of the sound, indeed while they are represented to a rather high degree, there is much in this day and age that inevitably breaks through. But if you are a traditional roots and classic country enthusiast, this album will be right up your alley, so to speak…or up your dirt road (which is a more appropriate thing to say, I think, considering the subject matter at hand).
Nick 13 will be performing his solo material at select venues here and there, so you may get the chance to catch him performing these songs live. At present, he has only a small handful of shows booked at West Coast venues. But…well, we will just have to wait and see where the road takes him. That’s what troubadours such as he do, after all.