photo by Wrenne Evans
By way of introduction, Nashville guitarist Josh Halper quips, “I was raised in Tennessee by a Jewish, New York Deadhead...” That’s not all you need to know about him, but that curious and compelling combination captures the mixture of humor, sorrow and musical virtuosity that ripples throughout Halper’s debut album, Alrightnik. Halper is a classically trained guitarist who studied at Belmont University; he spent years playing in local bands like Big Surr, Western Medication and Honey Locust, and since graduating, he's become a go-to hired gun session musician for artists like Chris Gantry, Emily Clement and Bob Clement. Alrightnik bridges all these facets of Halper's young but already prolific career. Constructed from the live sets he'd been playing around town, the record comprises a mix of deftly wry self-reflections, intricate guitar-forward instrumentals and one faithful Randy Newman cover, "Dayton, Ohio 1903."
Alrightnik is a fittingly sweeping and adventurous debut that approaches life's misfortunes in a way that's both thoughtful and comic. At times, it recalls Elliott Smith and Modest Mouse, like on "Whale in a Field," an exploration of the depths of melancholy during a long, isolating year after an arrest. But that earnest introspection is buoyed by Halper's sense of humor, which shines on tracks like "Honest Feeling" and album highlight, "Who Knows,"a frank and cheeky reflection on recklessness: "Whatever we were doing was despicable," Halper sings, "But it sure was fun." Meanwhile, instrumental cuts like "Reflection" and "Desperation Waltz" draw as much from Halper's classical background as they do from the finger- picked flourishes of Leo Kottke, Bert Jansch and William Tyler.
Ultimately, these myriad musical strains are tied together through a conceptual framework gleaned from the Grateful Dead. The album's title, Alrightnik, is an American-Yiddish slang term for a successful person, but of the nouveau riche kind — a little crass, a little smug. One could maybe read it as a slight reproach on the hordes of people flooding Halper's hometown of Nashville, but it's more a sly, slightly self- deprecating barb for a musician with a penchant for bolo ties and shirts with eye-popping patterns, a guitarist who knows how to wield his instrument for both a laugh and a cry.
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