Rethinking folk music and singer/songwriter themed material at this point requires boldness and imagination few performers possess. Austin, Texas’ Trey Hunter, however, is up to the task. He didn’t turn towards music until his thirties as a response, if not a survival tactic, to a period he spent coping with severe illness. Songs poured out of Hunter and listeners can gauge the deleterious effect his sickness exerted over his life by the inward looking nature of many of these songs. Don’t misinterpret that however – this isn’t a downer release. Its existence alone marks it as a triumph and some songs on the release aren’t shaded with the same shadows of self-examination.
I am quite taken with the song “Death of Eileen”. Its capacity for surprise made my first experience listening to this song my most memorable interaction with English Poets and further hearings only deepened my appreciation for its audacious design. Some listeners may think its two distinct sections don’t add up to a cohesive song, but I think they share commonality that holds the track together from beginning to end. The keyboards early in the song pair up just as well with Hunter’s voice as the acoustic guitar during the song’s final section. Hunter never again experiments with structure in such a pronounced way, but the track is a harbinger for the remaining eleven to come.
Hunter has a sure hand for incorporating keyboards into his songwriting and never does it in an obvious way. “English Poets” proves this and it’s another of my favorite moments on the album thanks to how well-rounded the performance comes off for listeners. There isn’t a single element left unaddressed. It has a layered lyric, sparkling guitar work, and a light keyboard presence that nonetheless helps further flesh out the track. The blending of self-deprecation and gratitude in “I Am Man” makes it a fascinating performance. Certain characteristics of Hunter’s guitar playing begin to emerge by this point for attentive listeners; he engages his instrument with a restrained physical style that accentuates its rhythm and doesn’t engage in a lot of traditional “strumming”. This bent to his musicianship enhances the songs a great deal.
The inclusion of occasional drums in the song “How I Feel” gives it extra weight. Hunter does play more straight forward chords here and mixes it with his aforementioned rhythmic tendencies. It’s one of Hunter’s more aching vocals on the collection that alone makes the performance worth listeners’ time. “Rescue Me” is one of starker tracks on English Poets as Hunter strips his songwriting down to the barest of essentials and appeals to listeners with naked directness. Drums are present in the song “Got a Girlfriend Now” and they give the track a thunderous exclamation point when they make their presence felt. It has a playful tone lacking from the bulk of the album’s songs and the track’s shuffle feel is perfect for its sentiments.
“To Be Yours” is one of the more open-hearted and muted emotional numbers on the release. It stands as one of Hunter’s most unguarded turns on this album as a songwriter and he shows off the necessary performing chops to exploit the cut’s potential. Trey Hunter’s English Poets doesn’t maintain one line of attack and his willingness to mix up its musical riches results in one of the year’s most interesting album releases thus far. I’m eager to hear more.