As an aspiring teenage guitarist, Carl Nichols was drawn to the blues discovered in his mother’s record collection – Robert Cray, Corey Harris – while his hometown of Milwaukee offered gigs playing everything but the 12-bar bible.
Instead, Nichols played in punk bands, in church, in hip-hop outfits and more, only returning to his first love after a European jaunt landed him in a Kiev blues club. On his return home, he made the demos that became the basis of this impressive debut, an album steeped in tradition but with an urgent, contemporary edge.
The tumbling lines of the 30-year-old’s finger-picked guitar carry echoes of the blues pioneers of the 1920s, but while the likes of Robert Johnson and Willie McTell sang with high, pungent voices, Nichols’s vocals are husky and intimate, which makes the anger of his lyrics the more biting. Another Man addresses the US history of lynching and police killing (it was written before the murder of George Floyd), remarking “Why wear a hood when a badge is just as good”. Overtly political numbers such as the harrowing Living Hell sit alongside more personal pieces; the desolate Lost and Lonesome, the rueful Sorry It Was You. Bleak but compelling.