This review originally appeared at Epinions.com
“Way Back” in 1995 Steve Azar came out with a promising debut album that proceeded to go nowhere. While a bit overprocessed to get ‘hits,’ “Heartbreak Town” announced the arrival of an important artist (at least to me) with good tunes (even if he has now disowned the record). Steve became just one of many who got churned through the major label system. I considered the record a hidden gem. Fast forward to 2001 and, much to my surprise, Steve had resurfaced. Not on a small indie label but big Mercury Records. Unlike last time, though, Steve had an ace of a single. “I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday)” became a huge Top 10 hit for Steve and I thought that he’d finally get the mainstream success he so deserved. Country radio, again, thought otherwise. Steve and Mercury eventually parted ways (after about four more tries at a hit single) in late 2005.
Following the footsteps of other Nashville artists (or perhaps just fed-up with label politics), Steve Azar decided to open up his own label, Dang! Records, to release “Indianola.” With a swampy steel guitar backing up electric guitar filtered through a wah-wah pedal, “Crowded” instantly announces that Steve Azar is very much in his own groove. With a witty lyrical cadence, Azar and his co-writers (Trick Pony‘s Ira Dean is one of them) have managed to create funky country. It actually has quite a similar vibe to something that Mark McGuinn, one of my favorites, might do. Steve segues into track 2 with a fine slice of mainstream country/pop “You Don’t Know A Thing.” Co-written with Radney Foster (another favorite), this philosophical song almost cracked the top 30 for Azar.
Foster and Azar again team up to co-write “You’re My Life.” Featuring a driving back-beat with touches of Hammond B-3 organ, “Life” lays out a lyric that says; “You’re my passion, you’re my home, you’re the hope that I hang on, you’re the wheel that keeps us going through it all, you’re the second wind I always catch when I’ve got no breath left…that’s why you’re my life.”
It’s a catchy piece of country pop that manages to make an oft-covered theme into something that could be a hit for numerous artists, if not Steve himself.
If I were the guy picking songs for late 20s-early 40s artist, I’d pick “Still Tryin’ To Find My Way Around.” No matter who’s singing it, the song is a hit. It has a progressive slide guitar laced melody backing strong lyrics about enjoying life despite not having any concrete plan of where we’re going. Based on a dream that Steve’s father had, “Empty Spaces” kind of sticks out on this record. A traditional country gospel number, it is the kind of song that Josh Turner’s made his career with and, to be fair, could probably knock out of the park. I also think George Strait could cut this bluegrass-y track.
For the latter third of the record Steve takes us to the Mississippi Delta. “Prelude” serves as the introduction but the rollicking delta blues of “Flatlands.” The bluesy slide-guitar riffs are stellar, Steve’s swampy vocal delivery does the Delta proud. Fans expecting a country music ‘work-out’ won’t find it here. This is pure, unadulterated, funky blues number that serves as a loving tribute to an area that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The fact that the band gets to flesh out their muscle on the track is pure gravy. “Bluestone” is another blues-rock number, complete with harmonica and duet vocals from Steve’s co-writer bandleader Jason Young. The song is miles better than any faux-blues strut Clint Black’s ever tried to do and actually it reminds me of something that the Neville Brothers might record. The title track “Indianola” romanticizes the small-town life that you leave when you leave the sleepy little backwoods towns all over the country. Since I’m a guy who’s lived through such a situation, I can really relate to the lyrics. A couple of great hidden tracks end the record on a high note.
Steve Azar may never win many awards or sell millions of records but he can have a long career with a small, but loyal, following. With the internet, Steve’s one of a growing number of artists that are able to release their own records and earn more profits from selling thousands than they’d ever see from selling a million albums. As a record, “Indianola” is a diverse treat that fans of multiple genres can enjoy. I certainly have.
Originally slated to be co-released through new indie Midas Records Nashville (who would act as promoter of the record and work Steve’s singles to radio) in January, the record was pushed back while Steve decided what to do. Currently the record is available at Steve’s shows and on www.emusic.com. It should be in retail stores and iTunes soon.