The "punk singer goes country" thing is pretty played out at this point. Sure, some have done it better than others, and there are some real gems to be found in that lil' subgenre, but anymore you best write the strongest version of that if you want to get somewhere with it.
...Is something I've heard more than a few silly goose burnouts say.
If we've learned anything from the internet as far as music is concerned, it's that everything was played out long before we realized it was even a genre or a thing you can do.
I met Ike Fonseca 3 years ago - right after Broadway Calls'
came out - at a defunct venue called Backspace. He was so utterly (and humorously) unfazed by the crossarmed, impress-me crowd of stand-15-feet-back-from-a-
foot-high-stage pretentious Portland 20-somethings at a show his band at the time,
Burn The Stage, was playing an opening spot in. Clearly someone who'd seen his beloved punk rock cycle through a few phases, Ike gave no shits as he, post-first song, let the packed house know, "That was better than you expected, huh? Now that you know what we sound like, no one will disown you as you move forward to the stage so this can be an actual show." It was the best thing I'd seen at a show in a long time - enough to
make note of at year end.
Afterwards, I professed to Ike my undying love for his band, to which he genuinely hugged me and spent 10 minutes excitedly telling me which parts of which songs were influenced by what bands. He laid out his recording plans via rapid hand placements on a merch table, apologized profusely for having sold out of most t-shirts in my size (I bought one that was way too small, just because Ike was so excited), loaded me up with random BTS paraphernalia and apologized again as he hurriedly ran around the table to see the next band play, making sure to catch me as I left to thank me for coming. Class act.
I recall this interaction clearly, and for good reason - this guy really loves music. Lives it. Isn't jaded about it. Made it through the Portland punk scene at its worst multiple times in multiple bands (The Civies!), only to emerge with even stronger work.
So yes, when Ike Fonseca, the punk singer, puts out a country album, it's not played out. That much love of music never is.
Ike tends to play the Tim Armstrong vocal role. I was curious how his raspy, kinda-slurred whisper-singing would translate across genres, and, admittedly, it took a song or two to get used to. Once I got what he was going for, though, it was a lightbulb moment.
Damn, if this album didn't provoke a long acoustic session from me at that point! 4 songs in and I wanted to pick up my guitar and write. I love shit that inspires me like that.
It's interesting to guess what guys like Mike Ness (who I'd place Ike nearest to, as far as Appalachia-influence goes) or Chuck Ragan took from their experience within playing punk songs. It seems the one clear takeaway is always a bit of angst, stripped down to its simplest form - basically, punk rock in a nutshell. Ike's certainly not the "angstiest", but he knows how to write a song with that in mind.
Letters Home definitely has some angst/alcohol-fueled doozies. Mostly alcohol.
At its core,
Letters Home is a simultaneous love letter to touring and not touring. There are ups and downs, pros and cons to both, but home is never as good as when you come back to it, just as the road isn't as good until you've been home for awhile. I think most folks who've spent time touring would agree. And yet, it's entirely relatable if you haven't. Like Kevin Smith's first 5 movies, you don't need to have seen all of them to appreciate one - it just helps.
As much as it's an ode to living the life of a touring musician, it's an appreciation of music itself that isn't cheesy or derivative. As much as it's an ode to country music's greats, it's an ode to all music. It's just a solid album, period, that doesn't ask much of you other than to sit next to it, hang out and enjoy the ride, regardless of genre, regardless of experience. It's a goddamn celebration of life, in the end.
I get the impression that this is Ike's "fuck it" album. Like, "fuck it, this is me and I hope you get it." These can go any direction, certainly, but it seems like Ike really poured himself into it.
Letters Home runs the gamut of emotions, from lovesick to fun-loving to nostalgic. There are sad songs, serious songs and just-for-kicks songs, the latter really being where Ike shines on this release. "County Jail" is easily the most instant-classic of the bunch, hot on the tails of Ike's punk rock roots popping out on "Ramble On". There's even some palm-muting to be heard.
As ultra-satisfying in its sparseness as
Letters Home can be, it's clear that you're getting the most sincere version of Ike Fonseca as can be recorded. For me, that's always the trump card. I'll take that any day over something even remotely disingenuous.
It doesn't hurt that it's also really fucking great.
(second photo by Daniel Alden)
Sound Convictions has no affiliation with No Pants Records - we just really like them.