By Brian Tucker
Music history has it share of bands ending in tragedy and others that emerge scarred but new. One of its most famous is AC/DC’s “Back in Black” album which saw Brian Johnson taking over as singer following the passing of Bon Scott. They are the same band but different. From tragedy arose triumph. The Low Counts’ Matt Walsh experienced tragedy of his own in 2017, when band mate Austin Hicks passed away suddenly. From it came it’s own healing and a new solo album called Life After Rock ‘N Roll, a record that reveals much more than its title suggests.
With it Walsh has taken a new step in his career, an album that at times reflects on the band working to succeed and features songs illustrating his knack for crafting excellent music (see “Didn’t Lake Long” and its playful slide guitar). It’s hard not to think of Hicks’ passing while listening, and that it’s part of its DNA, but it’s also part of its glory, that Walsh can honor the past through more music.
As a fan of The Low Counts I was shocked and saddened as any other fan to learn about Hicks. He was a young man, twenty-two, the drummer in a dynamic and powerful blues rock duo doling out powerful, soulful, fuzzed-out rock and roll. They played in Wilmington many times, often in the corner of Satellite Bar & Lounge to crowds that may have been surprised by the heat coming off those two guys. On guitar and vocals was Walsh, unleashed swagger and whiskey ‘n honey singing on songs both catchy and earthy (and a lot of history in his way of singing).
That band released two amazing albums (The Low Counts, Years Pass By), a 45 with two songs, even contributed music to a locally made film here in Wilmington, N.C. from filmmaker Fred Ireland called “Make Him Talk.” Those guys made music that crept into your bones and held on tight, and Walsh’s wiser-than-his-years voice made it all the more sincere. But just as the band was carving out a place and some success for themselves tragedy struck. Would Walsh continue playing music? No one would blame him if he didn’t.
But music, hearing and making it, heals. And Walsh still has stories to tell as evidenced by Life After Rock ‘N Roll. While The Low Counts is its own thing Walsh’s new solo effort is a larger palette than that found on the duo’s albums. They are two different things, albeit connected by Walsh’s timeless voice. It begins with “Which is Worse,” a song letting listeners know that the singer fans know is still kicking but bringing something new. With lively, classic sounding piano playing it’s a catchy, radio-ready song.
It’s well-rounded in that Walsh speeds up and slows down Life After Rock ‘N Roll with great effect. “Headlines” is acoustic driven, injected with electric guitar atmosphere. There’s the defiance of “Throwing Stones Against the Wall,” the apologetic and bittersweet “It Didn’t Take Long,” and tense rocker “Bad Advice.” “Somebody’s Got to Go” and “45 in the Cut” burns and smolders, the latter delivering a solid one-two punch with its dagger deep delivery. ‘Questions and Accusations” is like late afternoon back porch musing – it burns and sooths, like coffee and whiskey and the uncertainty of which to settle on. Walsh’s singing is pointed and underscored with dreamy slide guitar.
From start to finish Walsh, across thirteen songs, takes a new direction while thinking about his band’s past. Walsh tells it true, painting imagery about living on the road with lyrics like “This might make me old but I do it anyway…just trying to get a little change” and “We been out here working all week so people can stomp their feet.” “Headlines Never Last,” “Not Letting One Get By,” and the spare yet poignant, and smartly constructed “When You Lose Your Best Friend” flesh out things too. The latter doesn’t close the album, it’s curiously followed by the rousing “Rusty Old Ship Ready,” as if signaling (and sonically waking you up) that tomorrow is a new day with much to offer.