Daniel Romano is hard to pin down: he has been in punk bands, he’s put out country albums, and he recently released his third record since May of 2016, Modern Pressure. With each passing release, Romano’s music gets harder to describe in two or three word clusters. His early work was easily described as throwback country, but ever since then, Romano has been expanding his sonic palette. At this point, country is just an influence – a strong one, mind you – but no longer really works as the primary descriptor for his music.
Modern Pressure would comfortably fit alongside records from the late 60s or early 70s, somewhere between AM pop and The Band’s homemade swamp folk – Lee Hazlewood is a good reference point, as well. But Romano isn’t putting on a costume from that era; you don’t get the impression that he’s shooting for a particular era or sound. His songs come off as extremely authentic to him, and take enough detours to throw you off his scent, whether it is the use of backwards guitar, or his habit of adding an odd coda to the ends of songs.
Romano plays most of the instruments on the record, and manages to have personality and feel on all of them. On both installments of “Ugly Human Heart,” Romano’s drums plow through the mix, mixed up front, the tom toms slamming into your face. On “Jennifer Castle,” he does his best Al Kooper on “Like A Rolling Stone” impression, using the organ as both the sonic glue and to lift the arrangement skyward. His bass playing is in the pocket and full of thump, and is reminiscent of the Band’s Rick Danko – perhaps the highest complement I can give a bassist.
Just setting the album up as a 60s pastiche, however, isn’t fair, as there are moments – like “The Pride of Queens” or the outro to “Jennifer Castle” – that sparkle with a 90s pop/rock sheen, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Fastball record. The horns and violin that pop up on the title track are reminiscent of Los Lobos or Calexico, and again broaden the scope of the record even further. The bursts of sitar and psychedelic lead guitar don’t hurt in that regard, either.
But it is as a vocalist and guitarist that Romano really shines. His voice is emotive and real, with a grit and reediness that adds a nice bit of culture clash to the melodies. Romano’s guitar playing is effortless and rich, building beneath the melodies and adding a Jerry Garcia vibe without overdoing it. As a lyricist, Romano takes chances, writing songs like “I Tried to Hold the World (In My Mouth),” which seems to be exactly what it sounds like, or by using wordplay that is clever, but never gets obnoxious. His songs, either lyrically, or musically, always take a turn you didn’t see coming.
Romano is clearly an appreciator of lots of different kinds of music, and synthesizes his influences in ways that always feel fresh and yet familiar. Modern Pressure might be his most complete record yet, but with his pace of a record or so a year, I wouldn’t bet on it to hold onto that title for long.
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Brian Salvatore lives in New Jersey, and is the senior editor of Multiversity Comics (www.multiversitycomics.com) and a writer/podcaster at Amazin' Avenue (www.amazinavenue.com). When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, your Beatles hot takes, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).