Folksinger A.J. Roach may call San Francisco home, but he’s got the mountains and hollers of his native southwestern Virginia deep in his veins. It turns out he may have other things in his veins as well. And when you put that together, you end up with one hell of an Appalachian confessional album, called Revelation, replete with biblical imagery and harrowing addiction stories set to gentle banjo, mandolin and fiddle accompaniment.
“Revelation” is right. The power of this album lies in the juxtaposition of the traditional mountain gospel accompaniment and iconography with the tales from the gutter. Consider Roach’s alternate take on Psalm 23:
Whiskey is my shepherd; I shall not want
It maketh me lie down in a strange woman’s bed
It maketh me talk out of both sides of my mouth
It maketh me feel like I’d be better off dead
And there’s plenty more moonshine salvation where that came from. As is fitting for someone who hails from the same county that gave us The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers, Roach has got it, but you just have to hear it to understand. Critics have given it a label, and called it the high lonesome sound, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a gentle Scottish burr transplanted to the new world, encountering backwoods ghosts and night terrors, and emerging as something haunted and haunting. And Roach has it in spectral spades. He employs it on tales of sleeping in a freezing car, coming down from cheap cocaine, of walking bleary-eyed through the streets of Omaha. Revelation is a simultaneously grim and lovely album, full of sharp, vivid writing and soulful singing. It’s the southern gothic gospel of the halfway house and the homeless shelter, and it’s one of the best albums of the year.