War & Treaty’s Buddy Miller-produced 2018 Healing Tide was a stunning, one of the most compelling albums of that year, prompting this writer to comparisons of such classic acts as Ike & Tina Turner and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Yet War & Treaty didn’t emanate from one of the so-called soul centric cities but from Nashville, and given Miller’s producer role, took on a diverse and largely Americana following. They literally exploded onto the scene, touring with Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, appearing with Al Green at Radio City, winning 2019 Emerging Act of the Year at The Americana Music Awards, and eventually appearing on the Grammy Awards telecast earlier this year.
Naturally, now they have a contract with a bigger label and the trappings that come with it – bigger budget to attract high profile guests, orchestrated sounds, and a bit more spit and polish for their own self-produced Rounder debut, Hearts Town. Give them credit for keeping the production in-house, with Michael Trotter, his wife Tanya and their longtime music director Max Brown.
Be assured there is still plenty of power in these dozen, mostly made-for-radio tracks. The opening “Yearning” captures some of the flavor of their engaging live shows as Michael and Tanya sing about love without limits, their vocals soaring as guitars echo behind them. “Beautiful” features Tanya singing fondly about her mother’s passing, finding some peace and reassurance in it as Jason Isbell underpins her emotive vocal with a burning guitar solo. Other luminaries who appear on the album include Jerry Douglas and Punch Brother guitarist Chris Eldridge.
At least five singles have already been released. The heavily orchestrated but rousing “Five More Minutes” also has an accompanying video that speaks to their heart-wrenching, ultimately redemptive story. Michael, an Iraqi war veteran, recounts, “After years of falling in out of financial and mental depression, I had finally had enough. I was ready to take my own life. But in my darkest moment, where I was ready right then and there to end it all, my wife Tanya asked one last thing of me: ‘Just give me five more minutes. Stay with me. Just five more minutes to love you.” And something in her eyes, something in her hands convince me to give her that five more minutes.” The title track, also orchestrated, speaks to the early days of their relationship, reflecting on how most good is wrapped with pain. It becomes the touchstone for what Michael says – “We start imagining a world where it’s not too good to be true and that world is Hearts Town…Hearts Town is a place where you can come broken and open, regardless of your past and find love, just like we have.”
”Jealousy” also comes with a big sound, spirited trading of vocals, a driving beat and wailing guitars while “Hustlin’” has Michael’s piano underscoring a more restrained by gloriously harmonious treatise of perseverance and grit. It leads almost inevitably to the inspirational gospel-infused closer, “Take Me In,” one focused on the divisive times we are. The message is to stop looking for the next Dr. King, Malcolm or Mother Teresa and find goodness and confidence in oneself.
This husband and wife duo is all about unity and putting an end to divisiveness. Their live shows are like religious revivals where it’s not long before the audience is dancing and smiling. Other strong tracks that reveal a more sensitive side are the deeply romantic string backed “Hey Pretty Moon” which may have the best vocals from each spouse, the Ray Charles styled “Lonely In My Grief,” and the reflective “Liquid Lies.” For uplift, turn to “Jubilee,” which is clearly the most light-hearted tune of them all.
Listening to their second effort is like returning to the site of your memorable exotic vacation packed with thrills. You discover more interesting facets of the place the second time and find some excitement too but the unleashed elation you felt the first time isn’t quite the same. Hearts Town may not be as memorable as that first raw jolt (Healing Tide) but overall it is a more complete effort where you can still revel in their talent and uplifting stance.