Album Review: Pharis and Jason Romero – A Wanderer I’ll Stay – Haunting harmonies, deep truths
From my first ever listen of Pharis and Jason Romero it was evident to me that these were two extremely talented Americana artists. They sound like they could have been performing music literally at any point in the past century. The duo preserve the authenticity of the mountains, the sincerity of the olden days, and a kind of soothing harmony that is rarely found in any music, let alone such a vintage style. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is a fantastic album that avid readers of this blog will be thrilled to have.
The eponymous opener introduces listeners to the haunting harmonies of Pharis and Jason. There are well placed minor chords, creating just the right kind of tension. It’s not the kind of song we’d expect to hear on the top forty and that’s precisely what makes it great. “There’s time, honey.” It’s a song that highlights melancholy and simplicity; it’s about a lifestyle that rejects the ordinary and the hustle. It’s a wonderful way to begin the album.
“Ballad of Old Bill” has some great picking and engaging lyrics. It’s about how the world is “wicked’ when you’re alone. It’s also about trying to endure the difficulties of life by riding on. It has that quintessential Americana theme work about life retrospectives that tell a moral story. The song’s underlying lesson seems to be that life is hard. It’s definitely not uplifting, but it is a good song.
“There’s No Companion” has a different feel to it. Rather than seeming like a throwback, it seems like an update on an old fashioned style. The well-placed fiddle highlights serve to make the track have a bright coloring. The syncopated rhythm gives the listener a gentle sway at minimum and might just get some folks to dancing. In contrast to the preceding song, this one uses a generous sampling of “joy” and harmonies to provide a delightfully hopeful tune.
“New Lonesome Blues” are almost atmospheric in the way they hum along. It’s not a conventional blues song for sure. It looms with the brooding fear of “that judgement day” as one of the lyrics alludes. Sticking with the lonesomeness theme, the following track “Lonesome and I’m Going Back Home” has a totally different feel. It’s much more of classic Americana, with Pharis’s lead vocal absolutely stunning the listener. The harmonies from Jason in the second half of the song are just exquisite. It’s a timeless song about poverty and loss that just might be the best track on a really, really good album.
“Goodbye Old Paint” highlights the banjo from the very start. It’s a wonderfully rolling tune. It almost feels like plodding along on a horse. It’s a travelling song about “leaving Cheyenne.” The song has a genuine western appeal to it. It’s not just about a horse, though. It’s about freedom and love and commitment. What makes it work the most is that the song is old fashioned, but still feels really fresh. It’s definitely new and unique, even if it’s a tradition that is many decades old.
The moral high ground of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” is not all that high. Listeners can tell from the playful melody at the outset. The steel guitar does great work to introduce the gorgeous harmonies about love. “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you. It’s a sin to tell a lie.” It’s quaint. It’s the kind of song you can picture the residents at the old folks home tapping their feet to. I say that with utmost respect to the song itself, too. It sounds like it could be a song straight from the 40s or early 50s… you know the type your grandma thinks you should know too, even though it was decades before you were born. It’s sweet-as-honey Americana.
“Poor Boy” is as rough as some of the other tracks are smooth. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong about the performance, but rather the character of the song has a coarseness to it. It’s about empathy to an extent, but it’s also about hard work and calloused hands. It’s a front porch tune, for sure. “Cocaine Blues” is a bit unexpected on this album. It’s not that country folk don’t do drugs; of course they do. But it’s surprising to have this sort of O’ Brother Where Art Thou timeless charm with lyrics about, essentially, buying drugs.
The final track “The Dying Soldier” is an old classic tune, given phenomenal and vibrant new life here. In fact, it really challenges for the best song on the album. It has this brilliant confluence of love and life intersecting with pending death. Beyond that, the steady banjo and again the incredible harmonies make the song really thoughtful and emotional. It’s an exceptional way to end the album.
This is a must-buy album for fans of Americana. From clever, well-composed originals to a few classic tunes, it’s the kind of album you can easily put on and enjoy without skips. It’s solidly in a musical tradition of Ameriana and roots country music, but it is extremely well polished. It is a product of two exceptional musicians with a real heart and passion for storytelling and breathtaking harmonies.