Chuck Ragan's Till Midnight

Chuck Ragan has come a long way from his days fronting Gainesville, Florida's post-hardcore stalwarts Hot Water Music. He has reinvented himself as a “boss-obsessed” singer-songwriter with a subtle, yet substantial, collection of songs to match. His always hoarse vocals have mellowed and he has introduced more melody to his ramshackle songs, and his band has started stretching out and showing their abilities. Till Midnight is his fourth proper album for SideOne Dummy records following Feast or Famine, Gold Country, Covering Ground, and numerous other EPs and split projects with other punks turned Americana artists.

With each release, Ragan becomes more self-assured in the style, honestly telling stories of the road and covering the trials and tribulations of daily life. Many of the songs on Till Midnight are brimming with infectious energy that puts many of his compatriots to shame; he makes them all look like they are going through the motions. Ragan is having tons of fun singing and writing these songs and it shows, even as he covers well-tread ground. He continues to create sing along anthems that will have the entire crowd going hoarse before his live set is half over.

Till Midnight begins strong: the compulsively singable “Something May Catch Fire” serves as a call-to-arms for his entire program, checking off all the trademarks of a Ragan song: tight melody, catchy chorus, singalong parts, lyrics that aptly describe how his songs grab hold of the listener, etc. Ragan shouts himself hoarser as he lays down lyrics close to the heart of a road weary troubadour: “ She said, "Lay down, we only have 'til midnight /'Til we break out, and cut our trails on our own /You wanna burn this town and leave a mark to remember. “Vagabond” stays in this vein with Ragan singing, “If I find myself sometimes / burning the pillars of tradition down/ waking up on the wrong side of fantasy.” The song breaks into a fiddle solo and Ragan's well-oiled band shows that they are indeed road warriors, even if they aren't the traveling rebellious troubadours that he imagines.
The endless road is part and parcel of every song on the album, but that doesn't mean there isn't variety in Ragan's songwriting. “Non Typical” is more of a modern Americana exercise, but is far different than many of Ragan's songs, complete with hand claps and female backup vocals. The acapella sections, accompanied by drums, break strong into the catchy refrain and the band shows its fiery chops. “Revved” is an old country song, or at least as close as he will ever get to one, with its steel guitar and lyrics of love. “Bedroll Lullaby” is lusher with more production, relying on extra instrumentation. On another road song, Ragan sings about his travels with harmonica and fiddle. He sings, “I don't know how long I've been gone / And I can't say when I'll get home.” “Wake With You” is contemplative and emotional and really shows what he is capable when he slows down. Like a rougher hewn Cory Branan, Ragan expresses the tenderness at the heart of his rebel act.

His songs are every bit as literate and catchy as Frank Turner's or Bruce Springsteen's, but Ragan does not have to reach for either mantle. He is breaking new personal ground, breathing life into a well-worn genre. His dynamic, catchy songs speak for themselves. The album never slows down and almost feels too short. On “You and I Alone,” he finds an infectious groove that recalls early Bouncing Souls with a larger level of life experience. “Whistleblowers Song” returns to the folky explorations of his first acoustic albums with Hot Water Music rhythms in tact. “For All We Care” ends the album in a contemplation again, continuing the optimism that colors most of Ragan's work and building to a celebratory mood.

Ragan has fashioned another winner and is truly coming into his own as one of the frontrunners of the punk gone rustic movement. He builds on the melodies and rhythms of his old projects and writes about what he knows. His subject matter has been tempered by years on the road and although he covers very similar territory, he makes it new and refreshing each time. The melodies and harmonies are top notch. Ragan's body of work is impressive. Music fans take note.


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