It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without giving a spin to perennially estimable tunesmith Sam Llanas’ 2018 album Return of the Goya Pt. 1, streaming at Spotify. The title refers not to a painting or a can of frijoles but the acoustic guitar that Llanas wrote many of his former band the BoDeans’ biggest hits on. It was stolen decades ago. Recently, a fan found out about it and bought him a new one. The unexpected acquisition jumpstarted what would become Llanas’ most country-flavored record so far.
The opening number, Follow Your Heart is a lighthearted shuffle with Tex-Mex hints and bursts of pedal steel from Sean Williamson (who also produced the album). Matt Turner handles bass; throughout the record, Kevin Dunphy and Ryan Schiedermayer take turns behind the drumkit.
The band keep the good vibes shuffling along with Recipe. All Day, a droll band-in-the van scenario, is one of the album’s catchiest tunes and is the first Llanas recording to feature brass (in this case John Simons’ trombone). Heroes, which alludes to the Bowie classic, is one of the album’s more muted songs, but Llanas’ portrait of the Women’s March on Washington packs a punch.
The blithe doot-doot-doots in Little Song contrast with its thoughtful narrative about a hometown pal who ended in the war in Afghanistan. They follow that with Little Song II, a wry mashup of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash. All Alone Again has the gravitas of a forlorn Merle Haggard honkytonk ballad, while Rio on the Run, an older song, finds new life with a much more upbeat arrangement, a soulful shout-out to a hardworking lifer out on the rock & roll highway.
Long Way Home, with its half-whispered vocals, is one of those late-night road narratives Llanas writes so well: it’s the hardest rocking track here. Down the Line is a brooding, soul-searching, mutedly syncopated ballad from a guy who admittedly “Likes to drink – and I’m kind of a stoner.” The final track is Big Ol Moon, a tellingly poetic reminder that trauma hits everybody the same way, whether uptown or downtown. Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru, with its fiery noir ambience, remains the high point of his post-BoDeans solo work, and his 1999 album A Good Day to Die, with Absinthe, may well be the highlight of a hall-of-fame career. This one is calmer, Llanas’ voice is a bit more flinty, but when it comes to matching lyrics to catchy melodies, he’s undiminished.