What It Is

Hayes Carll

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What It Is Review

by Mark Deming

Some guys are better at being a regular guy than others, and more than 16 years into his career as a singer/songwriter, Hayes Carll may well be the most regular of all guys with guitars in America. Carll is just smart enough to tell his stories with a clear and articulate lyrical voice, his music is pleasing but as unpretentious as it gets, and his vocal style makes him sound like a fortunate version of the guy sitting next to you at the bar, chasing some bourbon with a draft. While Carll emerged from the Texas singer/songwriter community that brought us the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, at his best he feels a bit more like he's half Todd Snider and half John Prine, well acquainted with the funny and the challenging sides of ordinary lives, and that's the formula that comes across on 2019's What It Is. Fellow singer and songwriter Allison Moorer produced What It Is in tandem with engineer/bassist Brad Jones, and Moorer clearly knows what someone like Carll needs in the studio. She has provided him with a backing group that plays rootsy contemporary folk with the scrappy enthusiasm of a well-oiled bar band and a clean vocal mic that captures Carll's vocals, and otherwise she stays out of his way and lets him run his show. Moorer's instincts were right on the money, and What It Is manages to sound like everyone involved is playing at the top of their game while also maintaining a feel that's playful and loose. Carll has fun owning up to his various misdeeds in "None'ya," "Wild Pointy Finger," and "Things You Don't Wanna Know"; tries to do his best in the game of love in "I Will Stay" and "Beautiful Thing"; and gets a bit philosophical as he ponders the world around him on "Jesus and Elvis," "Times Like This," and "If I May Be So Bold." At each turn, he sounds like he's trying just hard enough to make the songs stick but without forcing the issue, and as a songwriter and a vocalist he does a fine job of making his real-deal persona communicate. Some regular guys craft occasional masterpieces, but Hayes Carll more often is the guy who delivers a good, solid, and enjoyable piece of work and then moves on, and that's what he's given his fans on What It Is. Like the cheeseburger that regular guy ordered at the bar, it may not be fancy, but it sure leaves you satisfied.

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