“The night life ain’t a good life/ But it’s my life” – Willie Nelson’s ‘take it or leave it’ lyric is enough to summarise ‘Leave Your Love At The Door’, the debut album from Cork band John Blek & The Rats. Steeped in rootsy Americana, this fine mid-tempo collection treads those same heartworn highways as the influences that Blek wears on his sleeve. Themes of alcoholism, love, lust and regret are dispensed with weary, resigned ease by the band, as Blek walks us through tales of admission, repentance and back to good ‘ol fashioned guilt.
References to drinking and addiction abound, but that’s not to say this is a downbeat trip. That irresistible lap steel guitar that weaves around everything on the album makes itself known straight off the bat with Take Me Home, before the song lifts off halfway through and shuffles gleefully to its destination. A Hawaiian heat shimmer raises its head every now and again, lilting on Cities Keep Changing with its lyric of “I wish that I could watch you weep and/ Trap your tears for me to keep/ ‘Cos everything that you secrete/ Is better than I could hope to be”, intimate in the strangest way.
Please Remain The Same continues the theme as Blek repeats “It’s over now/ I got Shanghaied by you” with gospel-like backing vocals. And it’s a beauty. When the music soars like this it’s worth all the heartache, John. There are echoes of Gram Parsons through the hopeless, selfish admissions of Rosie – “Rosie I don’t love you/ I just use you for your skin/ It’s soft as water I’m drowning in you/ And I’m burning up in sin.” Again, on Leave Your Love At The Door , Parsons casts a sequined shadow over a duet of an illicit encounter – “Leave your ring on the bedside table / Leave love at the door/ Leave your child in its rocking cradle/ Leave love at the door” – Gram & Emmylou sweeping out the ashes in the morning, as the male and female vocals intertwine.
Blek instils things with a contemporary slant, though, from the Conor Oberst waver in his voice to the Blitzen Trapper folk of Hand On My Heart. Crucify Me manages to be a playful romp despite the self-flagellation, with a rumble-tumble drum line and a walkalong bassline to keep it company along the road to redemption. An equally rowdy Lord! Don’t Leave Me has the same foot-tapping effect. The confessional is never far away, though; Don’t Take The Road I’ve Taken nods to Neil Young, and the song rumbles as if there’s a thunderstorm brewing in the background, held at bay by the counterpoint of some fine backing vocals and steel guitar.
Despite the age-old country preoccupations of addiction, deliverance, and blessed sin, there is never a moment of pessimism – this is the chosen path. By the time we reach the swansong we’re right there with the band at the bar, thirsts whetted, and as an album closer The Barman, The Barfly, And Me is not so much a farewell as an invitation to stay on after hours – “You see what flows through my veins/ Is unholy and inhumane/ But Momma I’ll never change/ not even for you.” The night life ain’t a good life… but this one isn’t for changing.