Many musicians weave a large chunk of themselves into their work, and Neil Wise is no exception. Only two of the tracks on Songs From the Edge of Middle Road were co-written with the help of friend and co-lyricist Dean Anderson; the rest were written entirely by himself. Wise has drawn from his own experiences and shaped them into tracks that can be both constructive and enjoyable to others. "Sausalito Slowdown," for instance, covers the impact a California town had on Wise's future, while "Two Brothers" was born from siblings he met in Santa Paula, and "My House Don't Feel Like Home" was written after the house of one of his good friends was broken into. The album title, Songs From the Edge of Middle Road, pertains to where it was recorded: in a small town in Southern California, near Middle Road, a road where Steve McQueen used to race. It also relates to his approach to the album. Wise makes it evident through his writing that he took a step back from the action in order to absorb his surrounding, reflecting on his own life as well as the events and lives taking shape around him.
"Sausalito Slowdown" begins in a heavy voice with the slightest touch of outlaw country sound about it - a tone Johnny Cash would have heavily applauded. The song acts as a nod to Sausalito, the small SoCal town that Wise owes so much to. This is where he met friend and fellow musician Todd Smallwood who appears many times throughout the album. "Happy In Your Skin" is one of the most memorable tracks due to its jovial tone. Wise has patterned a pleasant rhyme scheme that comes across far from overbearing. He has dedicated this track to being comfortable with yourself, whether you are large or small, young or old. Wise encourages that no matter what life may dish out, it becomes a good deal easier to handle if you accept yourself. "In Her Own Sweet Time" is a soft track with little more than acoustic guitar and Wise's vocals. Though female pronouns are used, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact subject of the piece, whether it be a daughter or a wife, or whether he is presenting some stronger force of nature in a feminine manner. Its easy listening aspect guides you leisurely through the song, enabling you to further soak in the lyrics.
Wise spices the album up a bit with "Just A Twist" by adding a splash of Spanish infusion in the way of melody and guitar picking. The track discusses the possibility of doing things over again. He considers whether things would remain the same, become better, or develop into a different path altogether if he were able to go back in time. The melody adds a mysterious flavor to the already mystifying topic. "What Will You Leave Behind," the album's final track, is a beautifully crafted piece that may just leave your eyes wet and your head nostalgic. He reminds listeners that there is unfortunately only so much of the past that can be portrayed through videos, photographs, and stories. It is full of touching lines, one of the most sentimental being, "Tell me, will Heaven ever glow more than your smile?" The mandolin and harmonica round the song out, leaving you with a peaceful feeling.
Although Songs From the Edge of Middle Road contains a mix of genres, they all seem to revolve around a single folk-country, country-rock base. And there is something about the voice of Wise that is especially homey and soothing without ever becoming expected and dull. Wise's music is unique, and he has shared his stories in such an intimate way that makes it feel as if he has given listeners a taste of his own private experiences.
Artist: Neil Wise
Album: Songs From the Edge of Middle Road
Review by Alec Cunningham
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)