Simply put, Justin Wells’ Dawn In The Distance is a damn-near perfect country album. I didn’t expect that when I cued up the album last week but the first song had my eyes wide open and by the third cut I knew that I was listening to something very special.
Wells cut his teeth in the band Fifth On The Floor but Dawn In The Distance is a quieter, country affair where the instrumentation perfectly complement the songwriting and Wells’ voice. The sounds are subtle when they need to be and out front at the right moment. Whether we’re talking about pedal steel, percussion, bar-room piano, electric guitar or female backing vocals, throughout Dawn In The Distance each element weaves in and out of the mix to make these 10 songs dynamic and interesting.
Lyrically Wells in tapping into his life of a broken-up band, an uncertain future, too many nights on the road and the consequences of it all. “The Dogs” is a song about the road, we’ve all heard plenty of these but the details are what makes this one a winner. “Pray to god that the checkout’s noon” is a simple like but breaks my heart with the desperation that’s behind it. I don’t really know much about life on the road but I know about wanting just one little thing to go right. It isn’t asking for much because the big asks are always met with no. “The Dogs” is the most rocking album but it doesn’t stick out in a “Super 8” kind of way.
It seems that the trend over the last several years is for albums to be shorter and shorter. Dawn In The Distance clocks in at just over 36 minutes. Shorter albums allow the artist to strike a mood and follow it from beginning to end without drowning the listener. Dawn In The Distance establishes its mood on the opening “Going Down Grinnin’” that mixes the struggle in the lyrics and vocal delivery with enough hope in the instrumentation to keep us thinking that things are going to start looking up around the next curve. You might be tired of hearing me talk about the instrumentation but it really is amazing. Producer Duane Lundy (Sturgill Simpson’s Sunday Valley, Joe Pug, Vandaveer) deserves credit for bringing in each instrument and background vocals at the exact right moment without overdoing any one thing.
Wells’ vocal abilities are on full display on “Three Quarters Gone” and “Can’t Break My Heart”. On both songs it’s clear Wells has the chops to make the air on the arm of the guy in the back of the club stand up, but instead he shows a little restraint and brings tears to the eyes of the guys standing at the front of the stage. The restraint ups the emotional ante.
“Little Darlins” is a perfect closer. It is nearly acapella and hints that Wells might have spent some time singing in a church choir.
Dawn In The Distance is a candidate for album of the year and would make Merle Haggard proud.