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Stewart, Will

Way Gone
(Cornelius Chapel Records)
Release Date: May 8, 2020

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Way Gone, the stirring new mini-album from Birmingham AL singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Stewart, doesn’t waste any time: In just 23 minutes, Stewart’s follow-up to 2018’s critically-acclaimed County Seat rips through six keenly-detailed portraits of restless, desperate souls with white line ferocity – as if he’s on a mission to chronicle the tales of these disparate nighthawks before the sun comes up. Despite the rush, Way Gone somehow stops to smell the roses via revealing lyrics and softer tunes that belie deep, opposing tensions. This is most evident on Way Gone’s opening track – and first single – “Southern Raphael”: A late-night tale of dive bar flirtation propelled by taut rhythms and skittery guitars. The atmosphere is gradually thickened by subtle synths that rise and converge with the guitars until they burst into crescendo – detonated by a lyrical twist that’s either deeply romantic or utterly terrifying. Possibly both. It’s like Cormac McCarthy writing lyrics for The Feelies – which makes it both an outlier and a perfect way to kick off this gripping, novella-like collection of songs.

The remainder of Way Gone is no less compelling. “River Child” and “Stowaway” are prime examples of Stewart’s ease in imbuing country-folk tropes with unexpected textures and atmospheres. “All Over Again” is a straight-up late-80s jangle-rock banger – an ode to the cyclical nature of bacchanalian escapism with guitars that linger at the nexus of R.E.M’s Lifes Rich Pageant and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. “Cruel Sky” evokes Yo La Tengo’s balance of twilit folk and bellowing, atmospheric feedback. Then there’s “Night God,” which pits Neil Young at his most loping and apocalyptic against urgent, contrapuntal percussion. It’s a stunning effect – creating an awkward gravity that underscores a sumptuous tale of unraveling. Despite the diverse array of influences, Stewart still manages to maintain an consistent sonic signature: Each of these songs insistently move and bloom.

Though it coheres, Way Gone is not a concept album. Born in fits and starts, it took several attempts to bring these songs to life. Stewart and a crew of frequent collaborators recorded these songs in studios across the southeast. Some of the songs needed more time to develop and grow. Others were lacking the right energy. Eventually, it all came back together in Birmingham – the bulk the album was tracked at Ol Elegante with Les Nuby, along with two tracks recorded at Communicating Vessels with Brad Timko.

Stewart’s compositional diversity is understandable – he’s a busy guy: In addition to his solo work, he collaborates with Janet Simpson (Delicate Cutters, Teen Getaway) as Timber, and performs in her solo band (and she in his). He also contributed to Sarah Lee Langford’s excellent 2019 album, Two-Hearted Rounder, plays guitar with Terry Ohms, and has a new band (with a forthcoming album) called The Blips. Still, Way Gone proves that Stewart has a vision worth chasing – and that he’s an artist on the rise.


Jim Fahy


Photos: Wes Frazier


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