Based on the opening moments of Ryan Culwell's first disc in eight years, "Flatlands," the Nashville-based singer/songwriter would seem to fit comfortably within the folk-based country niche by way of lovely fingerpicked acoustic guitar, heartfelt lyrics and a quietly powerful balladic sensitivity. With a keening resonance reminiscent of Rodney Crowell, Bill Mallonee and Willie Nile, Culwell exudes heart-sleeved doubt and hope while singing, "I'm only here for some friends of mine/It's either that or I'm scared of life/But now and then at the Golden Light/We draw a crowd and it feels alright," but at around the 2 minute mark of "Amarillo," Culwell, his crack band and producer/pianist Neilson Hubbard offer a bracing hint of the moody atmospherics that ultimately color the soundscape of "Flatland" and define it as a work of incredible depth, maturity and artistic vision.
If Culwell had maintained a standard country/folk stance on "Flatlands," the album would have risen to the top of the heap on the basis of his compelling songs and passionate performances. What distinguishes Culwell from his peers is his ability to inhabit each song like a melancholy ghost while creating a sonic environment as moving and evocative as the songs themselves.
Culwell channels Tom Waits and the architects of the Delta blues on "I Think I'll Be Their God" and "Piss Down in My Bones," but even at his most straightforward ("Never Gonna Cry," "Darkness," "I Will Come For You," the title track), Culwell appoints his soundtrack with sonorously bowed bass, moaning guitars and haunting vocals that hang in the air like forgotten Halloween decorations in bare December trees.
"Flatlands" is an auspicious introduction to Ryan Culwell, a potential top 10 album at this year's end.