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Matt Whipkey’s New Album, “Hard,” Reviewed

Matt Whipkey's
Matt Whipkey’s “Hard”

Matt Whipkey’s new album is a rocker, it starts with a couple of explosive numbers that bring some rock arena imagery, and then cools down with a more indie/alt-country vibe. “Hard” is the latest release from the Omaha singer-songwriter, who has built a strong following over the years and is a local celebrity. In 2013, he was named musical artist of the year at the annual Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards ceremony, while he has opened for country music icon Dwight Yoakam and rock legends Heart. He has been praised for his “no-holds-barred rock and roll, energetic live performances,” and has independently released many albums over the years (he has 14 releases on Bandcamp), under the tags Americana, rock, and roots rock. If today Country and Americana are genres that engulf a lot of diverse artists, Whipkey’s style has its roots in both classic and alt-country. However, the 11 songs of “Hard” are an impressive display of his songwriting range.

From the hard-rocking and shouted vocals of the titled track “Hard” to the reckless guitars of “Hello, Hello,” the music immediately unleashes some tense-vein-in-the-neck energy combined with dynamic and melodic hooks. The guitars are blasting, the drums are loud, and the album starts with aggressive but upbeat, punk-rock-tinged Americana, executed with unabashed passion and fervor. However, there are variants of sounds and styles throughout the album, with some palpable musical influences which could go from Bruce Springsteen’s rocking energy to maybe Tom Petty’s strong hooks, to Conor Oberst or Wilco’s quieter alt-country. ”Lazarus,” with its catchy chorus, wobbling organ, and layered guitars, or “Big Noise” with its bucolic melodic buoyancy may well be the best examples of the alt-country influence in the entire album. “Mayday” has a harmonica thrown in the middle of delicate and subtle arrangements, and it could even sound like a Joe Strummer late piece (“Silver and Gold”).

Meanwhile, hooks abound at each song, If “Adore”, an interesting and creative melodic piece, alternates between a screamer and a more tender tone with Dire Straits-like guitar textures, the song overall has a unique and unclassifiable quality. “Overboard” may have one of the sweetest and most rewarding pop hooks of the album, while “Quarantine Age Dream” starts as a calm ballad before exploding into a grand finale.

The album art cover, featuring a wedding cake topper next to the word “Hard,” seems to suggest some trouble in a marriage, and Whipkey, a real storyteller, writes lyrics that reveal vulnerability and vivid imagery. He either delivers them with swagger and passionate howls or croons with a low whisper-like breather.

For an album released in 2021, there doesn’t seem to be any use of electronics or vocals tuning: rather, the sound is as raw and genuine as you would wish for a throwback to a simpler time, while nothing sounds dated.

Iman called him Omaha’s best export since Conor Oberst, and with “Hard,” Matt Whipkey delivers another collection of creative songs. Pulling dynamic elements from a large range of influences, he sprinkles his style with melodic rock which sometimes exudes a Springsteen envy, or takes a more low-key Wilco-like lilt. The album is still good fun rock & roll from start to finish, and there is no doubt that “Hard” begs for a live show and one of these unashamed-to-have-a-good-time stage performances.

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