If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.
As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.
Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.
Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.
One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.
Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?
Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.