It’s remarkable, really. Each year, it seems like Baltimore’s Red Sammy has a new album, a new direction, a new project, a new life. If it’s not a Tom Waits-leaning, jangly set of swamp rock, it’s a dip into calmer waters, embracing some Trespassers and offering up an acoustic collection that doesn’t not fall under an Americana umbrella. From resonator guitars to mandolins; from gruff male vocals to pretty female-driven harmonies, if there’s one thing you can call Red Sammy at this point, “prolific” would be the most apt word.
The credit for that goes to Adam Trice, of course — the brainchild behind the operation. Whatever he bills the project as doesn’t matter; he’s the one always leading the way, always gathering the artists, always captaining the ship. And while the incarnations consistently vary in style and vision, you can always count on his blend of underbelly melancholy to darken your day in interesting ways. “Neon Motel,” his most recent set, is no different.
A contrast to his previous outing, 2016’s paired down “True Believer,” which featured a group he dubbed Some Charming Trespassers, these 11 tracks find Trice returning to his rock-and-roll ways, plugged in, turned up and ready to stomp forward, be it through the vice of anger or sadness. It’s a logical, respectable decision that suggests the singer succeeds with evolution. He’s not rewriting his own rulebook, per se, but he’s making sure the ties binding the pages together are tighter than they’ve been before.
There’s no better example of that than opener “Ernie The Lizard.” Paying homage to the great British rock of the 1960s, it’s deliciously straight-forward, drums pounding as Trice’s vocals feel strained in ways previously not heard. “Hey mama, wanna cut my hair/When I get wasted, you want me to get bent/so you wanna burn the clothes I wear/searching for the degenerate in the basement,” the singer offers as a chorus and while it might not look that impressive on paper, rest assured it comes across as the most defiant slacker anthem this side of the Patapsco.
The thing is, laziness can fit him just as well, too. While balladry has been a stumbling block for Red Sammy in the past, here, Trice’s group takes a significant step forward with a song like the title track. Featuring a lead guitar scientifically proven to cement itself in your brain after a minimum of five listens, it paints pictures more vividly than any of his previous attempts. Throw in some tastefully exceptional noodling that backdrops the chorus and you have a rarity in the Adam Trice lexicon: A legitimate pop single.
So, where does he slip? For the most part, it’s throughout the middle section. While the songs here are respectfully short, they don’t always further the growth of the artist. “Tired And Free,” while accessible, is a little too schmaltzy for its own good. Yeah, he might gain a Coldplay fan because of it, but for every one of those, he’ll lose five of the diehards who love him for his grit. “You That I Refuse,” meanwhile, is a good idea, but as has occasionally been the case previously, it lacks the energy and passion that could make it transcendent. Ryan Bowen’s drums refuse to feel confident and with such a biting idea lyrically, you would hope for more fire from Trice.
Perhaps that’s not the point, though. “I Stay In Bed” veers mildly into formulaic territory, downtrodden message and all, with its simple acoustic guitar filling in the less-than-mid-tempo, but the singer makes it work if only for how hard it is to doubt his depression. Even better is his decision to go it alone. In the past, he may have opted for needless backing players, but dancing solo here proves to be the most affecting move, his desolate vocals getting the space they need to truly make the raindrops shine.
It’s the perfect illustration for why “Neon Motel” is an essential piece of the Red Sammy oeuvre. The choices are more mature. The performances are more adequate. The development is more obvious. And, maybe most notably, the resilience is more pronounced. In seven years, this is Adam Trice’s fifth LP, and in an era where local artists have a hard time lasting past year three/album two, there’s more than a lot to be said for the singer’s tenacity.
“I wanna be a rock star,” Trice offers on the catchy “Rock Star.” “Gonna spend the night in the back of my car, be a dead-end rocker in your old town bar.”
Gas it up when you come to, young man. There still might be a lot of miles left, but rest assured that when it comes to distance, you’re closer than ever to where you want to be — even if that means waking up with a stiff neck for a little while longer.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***