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Ian Noe – River Fools and Mountain Saints – Album Review

The long-awaited – three years is a long time for fans – sophomore album from Ian Noe, River Fools and Mountain Saints,was released on 25th March 2022.  

The record, like its predecessor, chronicles life in Kentucky Appalachia.  Combining beautiful and meaningful lyrics with great musicians, River Fools and Mountains Saints will not disappoint any fans of Between The Country.  There is a retro feel to the whole album.  Mixing Ian’s known influences, the John Prine one can most clearly be heard on River Fool. If you were to ignore the language used – and the last song – this album could have been recorded any time since the late ‘60s.

From the first track you’re taken to Ian Noe’s Kentucky,  starting with Pine Grove (Madhouse) – a good country-rock number which introduces you to some of the characters you will come across later in the album.  From the first track you’re made aware that, whilst the song writing is of the same style and quality of his debut, it has more of a full-band sound.

River Fool is about one of the aforementioned characters.  It has a good country sound to it, with the steel and fiddle and some great harmonies, and an interesting story about a Lee County dweller. The other half of the named songs/characters in the title, Mountain Saint, is the first track on the second side of the LP release, the story to it being equally as interesting, although this time of a woman who has had to turn to hustling weed to make ends meet.  Lonesome As It Gets follows in this vein, with great lyrics – including this gem: “I’ve been stranded in the rain so long I don’t know what’s wet” – with  a melody belying the sadness of those lyrics.

Strip Job Blues 1984, you start singing along with from the first listen.  The chorus is catchy, despite being – like most of Ian’s songs – not the happiest of subjects.  The steel used on this track is brilliant, as are the harmonies on the chorus.  The strip job the song talks about is strip mining – one of the many forms of mining undertaken in Appalachia.

Tom Barrett is the first of the record’s tracks telling the story of a soldier.  It draws you in from the first line and the mix of instruments played on it will make you want to listen again.  The second – POW Blues –  is a more upbeat-sounding song and – naturally, with a title like this – the lyrics are the opposite.  The blues nature of it works really well, and showcases all of the musicians’ talents.

Ballad of a Retired Man is the most stripped-back track on the album – just Ian, his acoustic and a keyboard.  The subject matter works well with this treatment, and the use of sound clips near the end add a different dimension to it. Along with One More Night, these are the saddest songs on the record – the French Horn providing a beautifully morose accompaniment.

Burning Down The Prairie – with its great backbeat and awesome guitar playing – drags you in from the start.  The lyrics – which come with the physical versions and are also available for the Apple Music format – are worth investigating if you can’t quite make them out.  It tells a small part of the story of the indigenous people of Eastern Kentucky.  Appalachia Haze has something of Dead on the River about it, but a similar story telling style to That Kind of Life (both  songs on his debut record). More of the sad truths of many of the people who live in Appalachia. 

The real surprise of the album, for those who didn’t see Ian play live between 2019 and now, is the last track.  Road May Flood/It’s A Heartache is another slow number, with the first half about the floods in Eastern Kentucky during the writing of this record, to the tune of the Bonnie Tyler classic It’s A Heartache. About halfway through it turns into Bonnie’s song itself and if you didn’t already have it going round your head, you soon will – along with a few “nostalgic feels”. 

All in all, this album is a good mix of some impressive songwriting and playing ability, with a kind of timeless sound to it – retro and modern at the same time.  The human stories told make it both interesting and, at times, heartbreaking.  Be warned – if you are someone who gets drawn in by songwriting you may find Ballad of a Retired Man will cause a tear or two.  Equally as good as his first full release, River Fools and Mountain Saints deserves as much attention as possible, and as much airplay as any establishment country record.  If you like country music, or just have a thing for well-written and played music, be sure to have a listen.

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