“Freedom ain’t free these days they sell it by the pound” from Supermarket Rage kicks off Jonah Tolchin’s Fires for the Cold and sets the stage for the rest of the record both lyrically and musically. A backing band of A-listers including Jay Bellerose (drums), Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett, Greg Liesz (steel guitar), and Ben Peller (guitar) (and co-produced with Sheldon Gomberg) offers emotive accompaniment to Tolchin’s mournful view of America today, but like the blues Tolchin’s despair brings comfort to his listeners.
In “Turn to Ashes,” as if life would be less painful without it, he prays for this “hope to die and turn to ashes”. Somehow through this repetitive recitation that concludes the Ashes, Tolchin’s voice hints at a lack of sincerity; it may be he’s not ready for hope to die. Tracks like “The Real You” offer a counterweight to “Ashes” with a bouncy lope and a lyric that confirms what we all feel, “nobody knows the real you”. But, Tolchin doesn’t stop there, he goes on to tell us all what we need to hear, what we need to stoke the fires, “breathe and love yourself”.
“White Toyota Ranger” tackles a slice of life lost and confused about “what became of the nation”. He continues, “I’m just looking for a hero, someone to believe in”; aren’t we all. Dueling fiddles opening “Honeysuckle” transports us instantly to a backroad and the simple life of country love. Harmonies from Sara Watkins accent the sense of place, resolution of struggle, and warmth of simple purpose, calling on them boys to, “treat your baby like a setting sun”. “Wash Over You” continues this movement towards contentment as Tolchin sings, “I’m teaching myself to smile”. The title exemplifies a type of roll-with-the-punches approach to life, “all you can do is let it wash on over you”.
The sole cover on the record, Little Feats’s “Roll Um Easy,” carries forth similar life lessons to Wash contemplating the highs and lows of life that have led him to realize that his lover is his “sweet paradise”. “Roll me easy, so slow and easy, …you walking talking paradise, sweet paradise”; knowing that sweet paradise is there gives Tolchin the safety to confront the world head-on – to let it wash over him. On Day by Day to the rhythm of a slow steady march Tolchin admits that he is, “still learning to stand straight”. His confession that he takes it, “day by day” provides comfort to a listener struggling to do the same. The steady thump of the accompaniment sonically embodies this movement forward – one foot in front of the other, “day by day”. The jazz instrumentation leanings of the rhythm section one of “Timeless River” continues to emphasize Tolchin’s keep-on-keeping-on theme as it harkens to the jazz attitude expressed by the Beats. To go, go, go may be the best way to deal with modern life; for Tolchin its one way to keep the fires burning against the cold. As “Timeless River” blends in distinctly blues guitar tones we’re warned that the sadness of life won’t disappear so easy, but it may still someday.
Fires for the Cold closes with Tolchin’s ruminations on his place on “Maybe, I’m a Rolling Stone.” “I could be an angel or the devil you know, I’m not the kind to take sides,” Tolchin continues to struggle with the perennial human question of place and purpose. Somehow by putting his struggles on display, bearing his worries for all to witness, Tolchin brings consolation to his audience – the cold, the hunger, the striving. With Fires for the Cold, Jonah Tolchin holds a mirror up to America’s face reflecting the trials, tribulations, and general zeitgeists of our times. As the first Buddhist noble truth states, “all life is suffering”; instead of giving into the void, Tolchin’s reflections remind us to stoke our inner fires against the cold. Fires for the Cold comes out on YepRoc Friday September 13, 2019. https://www.jonahtolchin.com