Why is Rich Ragany not consistently selling-out theatres and gracing the covers of the likes of Mojo and The Wire? That’s a question that repeatedly came to mind during the first couple of listens through new album Beyond Nostalgia and Heartache. So, for the uninitiated, first – some history; ‘Rags’, Canadian-born but now firmly London-based, was frontman and principle songwriter with The Role Models, who gave us three great albums, the last of which – 2017’s Dance Moves – hit #25 on Vive Le Rock magazine’s Albums of the Year Top 50.
But, at the same time, Rags had a “bunch of songs that weren’t very Role Models-like”, and – with the help of guitarists Gaff and Kit Swing, and a plan to just do “a little solo thing” – they grew into the first Rich Ragany and the Digressions album Like We’ll Never Make It, and a band completed by the excellent additions of Andy Brook (keyboards), Ricky McGuire (bass), and Simon Maxwell (drums). Tours followed with The Lemonheads, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Whitfield Crane, and Warrior Soul, and a slated slot as main support for Status Quo’s Backbone UK tour. Then…lockdown.
So, with plenty of time and ample supplies of talent on hand, the band got busy writing, arranging, and recording a bunch of new songs. The result, then, is this; Beyond Nostalgia and Heartache. There’s a poignancy to that title that’s reflected throughout the album; September 2020 saw the sudden, tragic death of Rags’ older brother George, aged just 57, from Glioblastoma, an aggressive and fast-developing form of brain cancer. That led to last year’s From Nowhere To You single, a touching tribute to George in aid of The Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, but you can hear George’s presence throughout Beyond Nostalgia…particularly in the slower, more reflective Sleep and album opener Sometimes You Can Hear The Voices.
That’s not to say that Beyond Nostalgia… is melancholy, though; far from it. This is a record about hope, about finding the light in dark times, and about bright futures; it’s uplifting, instantly familiar and yet fresh and light and scintillating all at once. There’s pop sensibilities in here hand-in-glove with the rock, along with touches of Country Rock and Americana, and that airiness that seemed to come from Minneapolis bands like Hang Time-era Soul Asylum, Husker Du, and The Replacements; in fact, it’s Paul Westerberg that springs to mind most often whilst listening to Beyond Nostalgia…, both in terms of Ragany’s vocal delivery and lyric writing and in the deliciously well-crafted song-writing, the upfront arrangements, and the instant catchiness and ear-worm hooks of songs like It Was Lonely At The Time, Fade In Blue, and the rockier Marionette, little flashes of the lyrical poetry of Dave Pirner and the road-trip rock choruses of Ragany’s compatriot Brian Adams.
Guitarist Kit Swing delivers some stunning, soaring co-vocal work across the album, notably on Heartbreakers Don’t Try, Blackout ‘Til Tuesday, and album closer This Is How You Spell Tonight, and there’s some subtly gorgeous guitar work and tasteful, retro-feeling Hammond and Rhodes piano work throughout, but ultimately – despite the masterly performances – this is primarily a record about songs. And it delivers them in spades.
Beyond Nostalgia and Heartache is a stunning, beautiful record, inspiring and optimistic, positive, comfortable, and immediate. Catchy, hummable, and full of songs that glue themselves inside your head as if they’ve been old friends for years, Beyond Nostalgia and Heartache could just be the album The Replacements never made.
9.5 Alex Holmes