(Self-released, CD, digital download)
As Andy Warhol said, "They always say time changes things." His observation came with a caveat: "But you actually have to change them yourself." Considering his relationship to Lou Reed, maybe Andy knew it was hard to find a better bellwether of change than a troubadour. The world may be moving on around you, but sometimes you need someone to sing the change to you for it to hit.
Engine, the newest release from Vermont's Kelly Ravin, is a record in flux, a snapshot of an artist in a natural evolution. Since his days in Lucy Vincent and, more recently, Waylon Speed, Ravin has been an ever-shifting musician. He's never been short of killer chops and a clear, distinctive voice. But he has seemed to be searching for his sound.
Ravin's previous LP, 2016's Bonneville, was a strong, confident offering but conveyed a sense of Ravin reaching for an as-yet-unrealized picture. His virtuosity, as both guitarist and songwriter, carried him through the question marks.
That searching hand grasps the wheel tighter on Engine. "Little Girl" opens the record with a sun-drenched guitar lick, a first-leg pacesetter of sorts. Ravin plays firmly in the aesthetic he's established over the years: Picture having a nice smoke on a country drive and nodding your head to a steady beat.
Jer Coons (Madaila) and Ravin's friend and frequent duo partner Lowell Thompson make appearances on keys and guitars, respectively. But Engine is a solo record in more ways than one. Ravin plays the lion's share of the instruments. And his songwriting pulls the listener into his life with vivid permanence.
The title track is a heartfelt paean to his young daughter, Virginia. "By the time you turn 7, I'm gonna need a brand-new engine," he sings over a gorgeous pedal steel and piano swirl, as Halle Jade Toulis joins in on harmonies.
Ravin's voice is given top billing in the mix throughout. The drums are big when they need to be, and the guitars sound nothing short of fantastic. According to Ravin, he and Thompson both "dimed" their amplifiers; that is, they cranked the hell out of them, all the way to 10. The results are suitably massive.
From "Pennies and Pine" on, the latter half of Engine flashes a snarl. Ravin tells Seven Days he's been listening to a lot of stoner rock lately, and you can tell. The country twang of his last few records is beginning to cede to an urge to stomp and shred.
"One for the Road" and "You'll Fall," for example, are hard-charging rockers that allow Ravin to gnash his teeth, both vocally and with whip-tight riffs. The aggressive turn from softer, alt-country tracks doesn't upend the record's balance. Rather, the progression lends a tonal narrative, a mood that goes from lonely contemplation to a full-throated testimonial. As a result, Engine is Ravin's most cohesive work yet, mercurial and nakedly confessional, and a record firmly of its own time.
Ravin plays a pair of release shows for Engine: Tuesday, December 5, at Hatch 31 in Bristol, and Friday, December 8, at ArtsRiot in Burlington. The album is available at kellyravinmusic.com.