Its always interesting when music so sad sounds so good. Whether Derek Thomas was working through heartbreak or painting a wonderful narrative, Skyline Drives debut "Topanga Ranch Motel" is the audio equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Self-produced, recorded and mixed at Thomas cabin home in Topanga, the album is a wrenching, introspective look at love and loss. Recorded with a single microphone, the album has a tremendous live, acoustic feel as if Thomas is playing live at the bar that you chose to drown your sorrows in.
Of course the songs have to be on par to make a good recording great and the singer/songwriter delivers. While the format is country/folk, you can hear the other genre influences that make the album palatable to non-country fans. Combining lush and strident strings, like Ryan Adams with lyrics ala Paul Westerberg, and delivered as if hes Tom Waits younger brother, Thomas provides a wonderful mix of personal storytelling of universal truths.
Songs like Lemon Tree, Bartering Line and Yellowmans Cliff are solo numbers that highlight a man and his guitar. While the setup is minimal, the arrangement and stream-of-consciousness lyrics are powerful enough to stand up on their own.
Damaged, clearly the albums standout, is a wonderful concoction of Lynyrd Skynyrds Tuesdays Gone, The Replacements Here Comes A Regular and Tom Waits Bad Liver and a Broken Heart, a holy trinity of heartbreak if there ever was one.
Unfortunately, there are some weaker moments. Songs like Nothing Like You, The Captain and Rubber Bullets sound fine but feel par for the course in the modern folk scene. Thomas stands out when its just him and his acoustic guitar so it would be better to leave the brighter arrangements to Old Crow Medicine Show or the Avett Brothers.
Whether you need a stiff drink, some quiet time or a long drive through the Canyon, Skyline Drives "Topanga Ranch Motel" should be providing the soundtrack.