CD Review of The Fabled City by Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman)
Recommended if you like
Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie
Label
Epic/Red Ink
Tom Morello
(The Nightwatchman):
The Fabled City

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

I
t takes artistic balls to ditch the sound that made you a star and pursue another direction in a solo effort, so Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello certainly gets an “A” for effort on his second solo outing as the Nightwatchman. Recorded with go-to grunge and hard rock producer Brendan O’Brien, The Fabled City steps up the production value from the previous One Man Revolution album to include some of Morello’s trademark effects on acoustic guitar. But it’s still more what Morello calls “dark folk” than it is rock.

A number of reviews in college papers have slammed the album, basically because it’s not what they think they should be looking for from the guitarist that Rolling Stone ranked at #26 in their “100 Greatest Players of All Time” article a few years ago. But these critics either miss the point or just have no frame of reference for what Morello is going for here. One wonders whether they’ve ever heard of Woody Guthrie, or listened to any of Bob Dylan’s ‘60s classics.

Morello has called his Nightwatchman persona an antidote to his arena rock existence. He’s also said he enjoys being able to respond to a call for a benefit gig by just throwing his guitar in the backseat and going, without having to worry about a full stage production. The Fabled City offers up a platter of tunes designed to function in this context, although also straying into some rock turf.

The title track kicks off the album with a rocking tune about the empty promises of trade agreements and race to the bottom capitalism. “Whatever It Takes” brings some electrification and sounds sort of like a stripped down Rage or Audioslave. “Night Falls” has a heartfelt melodic vibe underscoring a sad tale about a union uprising in Morello’s Illinois hometown, with piano and strings elevating the song’s sonic landscape. “The Lights are on in Spidertown” features a dazzling acoustic guitar solo, while “Midnight in the City of Destruction” has a stark, bluesy vibe lamenting the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina and the political inaction surrounding it.

Tom MorelloMorello’s lost a number of close friends and family members over the past few years, and a certain sense of loss informs the album. “Saint Isabelle” eulogizes his aunt and draws from Celtic folk influences to create a cathartic and triumphant sound that is one of the album’s top tracks. With some harmonica and the upbeat vibe, the tune recalls Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing.”

“Lazarus on Down” is another stark track with just solo acoustic guitar and longtime Axis of Justice cohort Serj Tankian on spare backing vocals. But the “The Iron Wheel” picks up where “Isabelle” left off with a triumphant call to arms featuring Shooter Jennings on backing vocals. Both tunes really elevate the energy of the album. “Rise to Power” closes out the album with the somber dark folk vibe that matches the times we live in.

The Fabled City may not please the college crowd that just wants to rock out. But for those with the maturity and appreciation for music history to understand the connections between folk and rock, the album builds a modern bridge back to the musical activism in the folk of the 1960s that had such an influence on the rock that followed.

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