Allan Wachs – Mountain Roads and City Streets (1978)

Fair dealing/fair use

A friend and I, in an effort to broaden our musical appreciation, agreed to listen to and review albums we would never normally listen to. Due to the effort this involved, the scope broadened after a short while to intermittently include those albums that we would normally listen to (mostly new releases). Those albums which we would not normally listen to were selected at random from the book 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before You Die, a book that I would not recommend.

The reviews were never intended to be published in any way but may bring some enjoyment to the fair folk of this parish. 

Prior to being prompted to purchase on vinyl re-issue by a trusted record shop’s recommendation (yes, in 2023) I had never heard of Mountain Roads & City Streets by Allan Wachs. To be even more frank: I had not heard of Allan Wachs. Which has been, in the ensuing years since I was shown there was more to music than late 90s-early 00s pop punk by a certain long-shanked fellow, a damn shame. For what a beautiful, wonderfully-paced, simply-honed and crafted album it is.

It’s an album for montaging life. It has the confidence of spring and the somnambulance for autumn. Lyrics are founded more in the natural environment than elsewhere and invoke snow storms, high passes and rolling meadows.

In short: it’s a damn fine album that rests comfortably amongst James Taylor, Jim Croce and John Denver.

At its core is Wachs’s slightly-hoarse, sometimes-warbling charismatic voice over finger-picked or slow-strummed guitar. Whether Wachs decided it needed it, or the Producer is to blame, there’s the typical 70s instrumental garnishing on some tracks: a clarinet and harmonia or some such in places, possibly an accordion elsewhere and some questionable backing vocals Mama Cass-style in others. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract from the core of the songs which is Wachs and his guitar.

Excluding the truly wonderful (in every sense) first track of Adventures of the Invisible Dog (more on that one later), unusually it’s the second half of the album which carries the remainder. Mountain Man Breakdown, which introduces some fantastic fast-paced hillbilly-banjo, is kept from becoming twee by Wachs’s overlying vocal melody. It pays homage to the US folk tradition that is tangible throughout.

Mountain Roads introduces a darker, brooding sound in the vein of Jim Croce meets Jackson C. Frank, swapping acoustic for electric guitar and having percussion throughout. Northwest Passage tells the tale of immigrant-trappers and farmers carving out a tough but loved life in snowy mountains. It’s the only one where the instrumental accompaniments work well: a fiddle, second guitar, some soft backing vocals. The harmonies almost drop in to a chorus of country roooads, take me hooome which may or may not disappoint or please you.

Lastly, though: Adventures of the Invisible Dog. It’s the strongest song by far and one of only a two or three with percussion. Relying on the pre-Tinder vision of pacing the streets in loneliness following departure of a loved one, it’s Wachs at his best on the album: nothing is played up or overly complicated. It’s homespun and honest: I’m going crazy | I just might lose my shoes; I’m warm at night | And reasonably easy to please.

I have no doubt I’ll return to this album. Like all good music should it satisfies the old tradition of story-telling of joy, sorrow, travels and wraps them up in music of the US folk tradition. It’s honest, simple and down to earth and all the better for that.

© Cromwell’s Codpiece 2024