April 11, 2019 ZACKARY KEPHART
The short version: ‘El Camino Real’ is another solid project from Joey McGee.
Favorite tracks: “Stuck,” “Pining,” “Old Beat Up Car,” “The Cape”
Least favorite track: “The War You Wanted”
The long version: It says something in the modern Internet age that reviewing an album just two months after its release counts as being “late.”
In truth, I’ve wanted to cover the latest album from Joey McGee for awhile now. He’s the kind of likable singer-songwriter who you want to root for, and part of that recommendation comes from the criminally underrated Terlingua Taproot from 2017. Between his eclectic, but never overbearing, style and easy demeanor, I was eager to see where McGee would go with his newest album, El Camino Real.
At its core, whereas Terlingua Taproot often felt personal to McGee’s own narrative and upbringing, El Camino Real often shifts the focus to other characters. As such, it gives the album a relatable spin while still being McGee’s narrative.
Yet at the same time, everyone here is just trying to find their way on this album. A Vietnam veteran on “Old Beat Up Car” looks to chart the next chapter of his course after realizing he can’t find solace in what used to be his home. “Sunday Blues” is a pretty relatable song about having too much time to sit and think on a lazy Sunday afternoon. When you start thinking too much about certain situations, it can usually backfire, even if we can’t just run away from our struggles.
And El Camino Real doesn’t really offer the answers either, but that’s not the point. The focus here is on getting to that step to where we can even begin to think about moving on. Sometimes it’s in the form of burning it all down and figuring the rest out later like on “Hurricane.” And of course, this theme is captured well in a stone-cold country song like “Pining,” but even “For The Likes Of You” manages to be frankly honest with the narrator’s depression and anxiety and how much his significant other really does mean to him. A secondary focus is just on narrators who won’t give in, which is the why Guy Clark cover of “The Cape” also blends in nicely. “The Journey” also excellently charts the timeline of a life through the perspective of a mother down to her child, realizing that the child will have to chart his or her own course just as she did.
The album even begins with a re-recording of “Stuck” from Terlingua Taproot, this time with a slower tempo and more serious delivery. Personally, I think this version brings out the focus of the lyrics better than the original, so it was definitely a fitting choice to include here. But that’s also a note on how McGee himself has improved. As a vocalist, while there are times his phrasing can still sound rushed like on “Sunday Blues” or “The War You Wanted,” he sounds much more confident than ever before. He sounds like someone who genuinely wants to own up to his past and move on with “Stuck,” and you can tell he’s content with where he is now on “Deep In The Heart.” He’s the kind of likable storyteller who sings with more conviction than before.
And for the most part, the lyrical arc sticks the landing in terms of conveying those complex emotions. Although, it does sounds like there’s a forced rhyme or two in “Hurricane.” “The War You Wanted” is also probably the album’s weakest cut, trying to showcase the falling out of a shattered relationship, either with an old friend or significant other. But when the focus shifts from solely McGee’s past and personal perspective to pointing out the faults of an unknown person, it feels like certain details are missing to really make it stick the landing.
On the other hand, one asset of McGee’s projects is that they’re musically eclectic without feeling jarring or eclectic just for the sake of being so. Again, part of why the re-recording of “Stuck” works so well is its moodier, more serious atmosphere. “Pining” matches a great melody with excellent pedal steel to sell the aching nature of it. And the nice, rollicking guitar groove of “The Journey” is certainly a treat to hear.
But the album also mostly finds itself rooted in mid-tempo singer-songwriter material, meaning it doesn’t branch out quite as much as previous projects. “Hurricane” is a nice, dark, moody rocker, and “Pining” is an excellent country number. But considering the trials the narrator has gone through on “Old Beat Up Car” and allusions to PTSD, I’m not quite sure the warmer, wistful tones really help tell the whole story. If anything, the track definitely could have played to some darker territory.
But with “For The Likes Of You” being lyrically excellent and “Deep In The Heart” being true to McGee’s personal life, the album ends strongly. Once again, I think McGee can find an easy audience in multiple fields from country to Americana and folk, and El Camino Real is yet another example of why that is.
NOTE: This review originally published in The Musical Divide, April 11, 2019