Terry Lee Hale – Tornado Alley (1995)

Hale is an American artist who these days operates mostly in Europe where he seems to be better known than in his home country.  I suppose he’s best categorised as a “singer songwriter” though he has an interesting guitar style that allows him to branch out into instrumental territory as well. He uses a lot of altered tunings on the guitar, and he’s an effective and competent slide guitarist. Despite all of that, he’s operating in a broad genre which whilst it might not get a lot of radio play certainly has staying power.

The album opens with “Swamp Walk”, an example of his slide playing. It’s moody, a little eerie and an effective scene setter.  And it’s a moody album, full of characters for whom life seems to have not met expectations. “Forget About Love” combines post-relationship disillusionment with a repeated promise that this time, but starting tomorrow, the narrator will forget about love – and he wants his friends to help him. This is not the only song that offers what maybe a false promise, possibly made from false bravado.

Albums don’t have to have a unifying theme, and I think sometimes we see such themes when they’re not really there. It’s tempting to characterise this album as being dominated by the not uncommon theme of broken relationships, but I don’t think that’s sustainable across the album. However there is a feeling that a lot of the characters in these songs are running out of time or have hit a dead end. Even in the happier, up-tempo “The Ballad of Molly and Shelley” the two female protagonists seem to be running away from something – and getting unwelcome reminders.

The album focusses on Hale’s strengths and doesn’t give the songs more than they need. The setting is often sparse, but it works well here. Hale has a strong but plain delivery and mostly uses plain, direct language. And that’s not a criticism.

“Forget About Love” shows off his style well with a strong and effective delivery and clever guitar parts that aid and support the song. “City Life” is slower, less overt but still conveys the song’s mood effectively as the narrator ponders a change of scene. There’s an effective violin part on that track, and this is another strength of the album – Hale and his producer bring backing players in, but the added parts never crowd the songs unnecessarily.

There’s an uptempo spell about 3/4 way through that serves as a change up of mood, but the final run of songs are perhaps the strongest and hardest hitting on the album and maybe the darkest. “SAM DTs” is Hale and guitar and a dark portrait of a substance abuser drying out alone. “Tornado Alley” is a metaphor for the inner turmoil that the song’s character carries everywhere with him, and how he’s got used to it (“I was born and raised”) but his lover never could. “Like Raymond Carver” is the final good bye and a walk off into the sunset and down the road.

So in a way there’s nothing ground breaking here. The subject matter is not unusual, but as I said this genre, these sorts of songs have a lot of legs.  It’s not so much what you say as how you say it, the details in the songs and in the delivery. And this is where this album shines – the songs and the delivery are strong and the production always has enough there, but just enough.

If you like some songs that you can listen to, songs with stories or that paint pictures, and if you enjoy a stripped down delivery that puts the songs and the stories up front then Hale might be a rewarding addition to your collection.

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