Review

"Set adrift in the depths of the drink in the hands of the gods we curse," Chuck Ragan is searching, for salvation perhaps, for answers maybe, but mostly "drifting with clutching arms in a world ever dark, wondering what betook us." On the semi-acoustic Feast or Famine, Ragan's solo studio debut, the singer/guitarist sails far from the shores of his former band, Hot Water Music, offering up a dozen intensely introspective numbers, awash in compelling imagery and heartfelt emotion. Within, he bares his feelings, his views, and his doubts, an artist determined to swallow the world and make sense of it. "I wanna know, I wanna feel everything," he fervently declares on the exhilarating "California Burritos," a song that owes a bit more to the Balkans than the Latin lands, but is most indebted to country & western. That song's defiant lyric, "I can't stand standing for nothing, when standing up is all I know," is the most telling within, for Ragan stands very tall indeed here. He uses his lethal pen to devastating effect on "For Broken Ears," slicing and dicing the Bush Administration and all their lies in pure Americana style. They'll never pay the price, but the protagonist fallen "Between the Lines" does, in a grunt's eye view of "the War on Terror" set to a dark, insistent R&B backing. Our heads reel with the horror that's unfolded around us, paralyzed over the best way now to proceed, but mutiny is brewing, and Ragan rallies it forth on the rabble-rousing singalong "It's What You Will." On the violin-led, exuberant "Do You Pray," he offers up comradely encouragement to all, joyously urging us to find hope and peace where we can. For "we're all flesh and blood," and we need to show a little mercy to everyone. For Ragan, happiness is found in music and dance, as he emotively explains on the sweet and upbeat "Do What You Do," the perfect closer to this thoughtful, musically diverse set. It's not really American, although it's certainly folky in places, but with violins, harmonicas, acoustic guitars, and banjos tempered by percussion and organ, there's a surprising richness to much of the album, and even a tinge of punk here and there. Ragan searches on, and listeners will be glad they joined his quest. ~ Jo-Ann Greene, Rovi

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