Chris Bathgate's songs are connected to the Midwest much in the same way R.E.M.'s early work was connected to the South. Michigan and Illinois aren't just locations -- they're a haunting chill, a tidal force, a mood that hangs in his lyrics like frozen fog. In other words, this isn't just folk music -- this is Middle American Gothic. And those familiar with Bathgate's previous work will be pleased to find that this preoccupation with place (not to mention loss and heartache) hasn't been lost on his first "big" indie release, A Cork Tale Wake. It does feel different from his previous work, insofar as it deviates from the bluegrassy, old-timey stuff that dominated his two previous releases. He sounds focused; there's a wider array of instrumentation here (spidery E-bows, scrunchy trumpets, and haunting distortion), but this album nonetheless manages to sound more reined in than Bathgate's earlier releases. It's a sound that nods to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- browbeaten Americana torn through with layers of sprawling reverb -- and the change feels right. Bathgate's songs hang beautifully in this new setting, like rustic paintings mounted in high-quality frames. Naturally, it helps that A Cork Tale Wake contains some of Bathgate's most mature songwriting to date; tracks like "Every Wall You Own," "The Last Wine of Winter," and "The Last Parade on Ann St." (a reference to a street in Ann Arbor, MI) all stand among his finest work. A Cork Tale Wake is a somber album, but that just goes with the territory. This is the Midwest, after all; the winters are hard and many of the songs are sad.
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AllMusic Review by Margaret Reges