Wes Collins Spins Provocative Thoughts and Vivid Character Sketches on ‘Jabberwockies’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Portraits of Wes Collins taken at Cafe Grata in Carrboro, NC

With a voice resembling Steve Earle’s sans the political bent, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Wes Collins issues his third album, Jabberwockies, complete with dark narratives and some interesting characters.  Collins has won or placed near the top in several reputable songwriter competitions and is the epitome of the Americana sound, citing these artists as his major influences – Bruce Cockburn, Neil Finn, Patty Griffin, and Gillian Welch. For this effort, Collins culled down thirty songs he had written since 2017 to the ten that appear here. Collins plays guitars and vocals,  backed by an assortment of other artists including River Guerguerian (drums), FJ Ventre (bass), Franklin Keel (cello), Matt Smith (pedal steel) (Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters), Scott Dameron (guitars), Barry Gray (acoustic guitar and harmony vocals), co-producer Chris Rosser (keys), Jaimee Harris (harmony vocals), and Ordinary Elephant–Pete Damore (octave mandolin) and Crystal Hariu-Damore (harmony vocals).

The harmonious, bright opener, “Jenny and James” pairs Collins with the Ordinary Elephant guests who were co-writers.  They started writing the song together when the Damores were staying at Collins’ house and then, after leaving, they each finished their own versions of the song. So, there are two different Jennys and two different Jameses. The Damores pair had a relationship that endured against long odds while Collins’ pair had an initially promising one that never blossomed. “Under My Fingers” has Collins in a solo writing effort, imbued with harmonies from Harris and lovely cello from Keel as he describes that classic situation when someone is trying to have a conversation with you when you are obsessed with writing something and struggling to find the right words.  Communication doesn’t flow in either one. “Cocoon” seems to be about hoping to reinvent oneself in order to salvage a relationship but being unsuccessful in the effort. 

The finger-picked “Last Saturday” follows one recovering from a breakup, reluctant to leave his environs but beginning to find the courage to do so.  The provocative “Look Out” takes a melancholy tact with the counterintuitive notion of “looking out for the people that love you.”  Collins breaks away from the pensive with “Medusa,” an upbeat tune with harmonies from Harris with some great details in the lyrics – “Coaxes her hair into her hat and checks her make-up’/Comes to the window when she’s sure that she can smile/And when the hourglass starts yellowing the paper/She’s got to get herself outside a little while.”  “Grease Fire” is of a similar ilk to “Cocoon” with a series of metaphors that make one pause and relisten.

The sluggish tempo of “Trees” may put some off but it’s one of the strongest tunes here, colored by violin and cello and Collins takes the point of view of a forest ranger and delivers clever wordplay around the old cliché “can’t see the forest from the trees.”  And he finally rocks out on cut nine with “Sugar Skull.” Collins returns to his more natural, pensive state in the closing title track, loosely based on the iconic Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky,” a nonsense story of killing the mythical creature Jabberwock.  In Collins’ tune, he offers hope by saying there are both angels and monsters lying around the next proverbial corner. One just has to persevere through the struggles to find inner peace, to the refrain of “you won’t have to wait long.” 

So, Collins gives us plenty to ponder about, whether it be unrequited love, recovery, looking back, or common situations that few others have expressed so well in a song. His thought patterns are deep, and you’ll find yourself revisiting many of these tunes to home in more closely on his messages.

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