The humor, pathos, and level of specific detail laden throughout Robert Andrew Wagner’s songs set him apart from many peers and contemporaries. The deciding factor, however, that should push you towards checking out Little Wretches’ latest release Red Beets & Horseradish, however, is Wagner’s voice.
I do not mean his singing. His authorial voice is worth the price of purchase alone as Wagner’s writing allows him to don several masks over the course of Red Beets & Horseradish. He writes about hard times, bad luck, and the sort of hapless blundering through life most of us succumb to at some point with a relaxed conversational style. There are other moments and songs though where Wagner’s songs achieve grander peaks than sketching everyday dramas; the music remains on equal footing from beginning to end and supplies attentive melodic accompaniment.
“Rise” has a predictably exhortative quality, but there’s no questioning its effectiveness. A lot of that effectiveness comes from the song’s backing vocals. The album’s vocal arranging, as a whole, is exemplary and the opener easily rates among its best. It introduces the general template moving forward, as well – Little Wretches are working within the folk-rock realm and judge its borders to be wider than most.
“Lovingkindness” attests to their free-ranging creativity. I hear white-hot commitment in both the words and the way Wagner sings, especially during the verses, and the song draws from a deeper emotional well than its predecessor. It doesn’t make it “better”, per se, just different. “Palms and Crosses” has a wealth of ear-catching imagery, and the rambunctious, almost raucous, musical attack gives further urgency to the performance. The vocals provide a standout moment, as well, and hit stratospheric heights during the chorus.
Wagner steps back from the microphone and cedes the lead vocal duties for the album’s fifth song, “Winter’s Grace”, to Rosa Colucci. She has an immensely soulful voice more than capable of carrying the song on her own; it’s warm without ever sounding overstated and strong without ever flexing too much for listeners. “Heaven Was Open” puts the focus again on Wagner’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of compelling melodies and memorable refrains. There’s never anything overtly fancy in his approach, the musicianship is high, however, but his talents as an arranger are substantial. “Heaven Was Open”, as well, gives us an excellent forum for hearing his unique voice, fully realized.
“It’s Raining” shares some of the individualistic songwriting characteristics setting apart a slew of the album’s finest moments. It goes a little further than before, however, and its inspired lyric anchored to so much seemingly mundane detail comes across perfectly in Wagner’s hands. He has a dry, almost Lou Reed-quality others may notice. We get a great guitar riff driving much of “Old Hundredth”, but the firepower doesn’t stop there. Mike Madden’s drumming has hard-hitting authority while never forgetting to swing. There isn’t a miss among Red Beets & Horseradish’s thirteen songs, and it sounds like the work of a songwriter and band beginning to hit their stride.