(2017 Lost Lakes Music)
Corey Mathew Hart is surely one of the most unsung entries in the hefty crop of Madison singer-songwriters in their prime. Releasing his first EP Words Like Wildfire in 2007, Hart quickly earned a Songwriter of the Year nod from Isthmus. He then relocated to North Carolina, hooking up with Danny Johnson and forming a duo they called Wooden Houses, releasing a self-titled album. Back in the Midwest, Hart released another EP in 2011, the exquisite Winter Bones, which earned him two Madison Area Music Awards in 2012 for Folk/Americana Album of the Year and for Male Vocalist of the Year. The vocalist award is especially apropos as it is the depth and strength of Hart’s smooth and soulful voice that puts the wind to his emotionally-charged songwriting sails.
Hart ran into bassist/songwriter/recording artist Paul Mitch at a songwriter competition and the two hit it off. They formed a partnership they call Lost Lakes and in 2014 triumphed in the inaugural Rising Stars competition created by the Overture Center to recognize burgeoning local talent, winning out over some two hundred applicants. Thus began a collaboration that distilled slowly and methodically to produce the fine elixir that is this debut album. Along the way keyboardist Rusty Lee was recruited along with drummer Shane Leonard. The addition of Leonard ( a member of uber-popular Milwaukee band Field Report) proved especially fruitful as Lost Lakes teamed with engineer Justin Guip who developed the signature sound of Levon Helm’s two Grammy Award-winning records – 2007’s Dirt Farmer and 2009’s Electric Dirt. The mix, while it lofts these songs to another level, could not have been achieved without quality tracking which, amazingly, was done by Paul Mitch.
Two keys to this recording lie in the significance of the genre that boasts them: songwriting and singing. And not just the lead vocals but the backup vocals. One listen to the opening track will affirm the industrious follow-through lavished on inspired songwriting. “Digital Tears” explores the loss of personal connection to each other and especially to the natural world. As the second verse rolls around a subtly placed harmony vocal glazes the aural sphere. A close listen to this track reveals the beauty of Guip’s mix, the third key to this album’s achievement. The keyboards lurk in the background, providing nearly inaudible tension; a shaker is perfectly placed in the stereo field. A casual listener probably wouldn’t even notice it’s there – or the slow buildup of digital noise – and that’s the beauty of it. When even the mix is complementing the lyrical subject matter you know you’ve got a true labor of love.
Lost Lakes refer to their sound as Wisconsana, a particularly Midwestern take on Americana that has a lot in common with the Band and whose thread runs throughout the album. “Can’t it Wait” is one of these. Here Lee’s organ is central to the vibe. “Bayonet Tongue” is another, the lead vocal against an awesome canvas of backing vocals, the lyrics Dylanesque as the love warrior marches out to his defeat. The concept gets expanded on “Whiskey River,” a dreamy quality infused into the roots, the tremolo guitars adding weight and Andrew Harrison guesting on a pointedly acerbic lead guitar. Another guest, Charlie Rose plays sweet steel guitar on “Give Up the Ghost,” one of several achingly beautiful ballads. Rose’s pedal steel also haunts “Summer Rain.”
“Free Love” approaches a Dead-vibe with Anna Vogelzang pitching in on the refrain while a harmonium adds that sense of peculiarity that seems to be lurking on every track. A vision of Linda Ronstadt onstage with the Eagles might be apt. Amber Sebastian harmonizes on “Heart Remembers,” a country-ish ballad with another hook-ridden chorus.
“Mona Lisa” percolates with early seventies folk-pop sentimentality, reverbed-out keyboards and arpeggio guitar picking creating a superb arrangement while the vocals swoop up into plaintive falsetto. This track is mightily impressive for its sheer inventiveness.
A lot has to be said for the vocals on this album. Hart’s resonant and soulful voice sounds effortless as it glides through the tracks. Mitch takes the lead on a couple of tracks at least, their voices are similar and the blend of the two, along with vocal layering, is simply sublime. Lost Lakes is perhaps, above all, a vocal record, a distinctly Midwestern drawl giving it that Wisconsana effect.
A remarkably creative and inventive album, Lost Lakes is enjoyable from start to finish. Its bedrock is the songwriting but every aspect added from there is critical and elevating. That is the mark of a great record and with this calling card, Lost Lakes should, by all rights, be getting return phone calls by the score.