Chris Rea's voice is like the smoke off a prairie fire or the sparks and flame from a flint and steel. Coupled with his robust, tasteful songwriting, the effect is to pull the listener into a song or album, grabbing at the brain -- not just the ears. Auberge is the follow-up to Road to Hell, an ambitious, dark-toned album that found European and critical success. Auberge may not be as dark as its predecessor, but Rea seemingly can't sing a word without sharpening its flinty edges, making it a bit threatening. That said, his latest effort tempers that wariness with a mixture of cavalier spontaneity and sighing recall. It's the thoughts and feelings of a man on a meandering road trip, thinking over the things he's said and done. "Heaven" seems to recall a time when the afterlife was in reach, but it could just as easily be the song of someone who's finally found his way. The reggae-tinged "Every Second Counts" finds Rea adjusting his phrasing perfectly to the song's mellow upbeat, while the rousing title track and its accompanying set piece "Set Me Free" move from searching, tentative guitar noodlings into full-blown epics, sketching the album's story line with bluesy bottom end, blustering horns, backup singers, and Rea's own grainy vocal rumble. Auberge might be a bit tough to break into at first, like a road map that you just can't unfold, but that's because ambitious, rangy songwriting is going to take a few odd turns on its way to the scenic overlook where everything becomes clear. In Rea's case, that moment is summed up over the twisting guitar and swelling strings of "Gone Fishing." "You can waste a whole lifetime trying to be what you think is expected of you," he sings, and offers the simple act of casting a line as cure for life's wrong turns.
by Johnny Loftus