Hard Times Straight Lines

The Hill Country has been abuzz over Aaron Stephens for a couple of years now, and his new Hard Times Straight Lines is a result of the outpouring of support for his Kickstarter campaign. The buzz is deserved, too. Stephens’ instrumental chops are on fine display right from the start, with the opening “Yesterday’s Favorite” jamming like Robert Randolph and Stevie Wonder, and the second track, “Shadow,” haunting with licks akin to B.B. King. He’s got playful pop instincts, too: “Zzzz” is a Maroon 5-esque bouncer, and the swaying and sunshine continues with “Do Something.” But Hard Times is also a very heartfelt and personal album, and often times very dark, too, as shown in songs like the distant and etheral “Hardest Battles” and “Sad Excuse.” But then redemption comes with the swells of “Fighter,” and the album’s most poetic track, “Roses,” finds a balance between despair and hope: “So much hurt out on these streets/soaked from rain and tears/kind of makes me wonder/has God been crying here?/I look down on the concrete and see something red/I see a pair of roses growing there.” And in the closing “Curtain Call,” he declares, “I am not afraid/That’s how I was raised.” This really is a cohesive album with a message to share, the kind you can just push play on and enjoy casually all the way through but that reveals more and more the deeper you listen. Between the influences and personal touches, Stephens captures a lot here, and altogether, it’s a fantastically smooth pill to swallow. — CODY OXLEY