by: Randy Houser

During his supporting tour for 2016's Fired Up, Randy Houser decided to step away from the splashy mainstream sound he had been pursuing and go for something different -- something direct and earthy, music that could have conceivably been inspired by neo-outlaw Chris Stapleton, even if it didn't sound precisely like the "Nobody to Blame" singer. Houser unveils this shift in direction on 2019's Magnolia, a loosely autobiographical song cycle whose dramatic undercurrents are brought to the surface on an accompanying fictional film which features the singer/songwriter as a bartender. Listening to Magnolia, there's no indication that its 12 songs would lend themselves to the screen, which is a compliment. Although the songs are thematically linked -- love and loss frequently reoccur, as does reckoning with middle age and the need to have a good time -- the record plays like nothing more than a collection of sturdy songs. Whether it's the searching opener "No Stone Unturned," the riotous Friday night anthem "Whole Lotta Quit," the barroom weeper "What Whiskey Does" (which features sympathetic support vocals from Hillary Lindsey), or the smoldering "No Good Place to Cry" -- a Southern soul number so perfectly executed, it seems excavated from the late '60s -- each of the songs stands on its own, but when heard collectively, they gain strength from each other. The result is Houser's best album yet: A casually confident, emotionally resonant record that feels born out of hard-won wisdom. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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