Darren Cross has been steadily building an impressive body of work as a solo alt-country singer/songwriter (and as half of Jep and Dep) in the wake of a long musical history in Gerling, as a DJ and many other projects. This feels like the most genuine channelling of his muse. The solo platform suits his mood and musical temperament and it forces Cross to strip his songs back to the bare-boned skeleton of voice and guitar.
No Damage collects five songs, most of which were written after a Greyhound bus trip across parts of America. As a foreigner his ears and eye for observation would have been on high alert, soaking up the scenery and characters streaking past in the blurred Southern US landscape and those restless souls trying to get somewhere out of necessity, fear or desire. The real success in these songs is the way Cross combines literal observations from that experience with stories and thoughts triggered by his travels.
First single ‘Slings and Arrows’ treads a delicate fingerpicked path, rich and intimate across the fretboard with Cross sounding right on the edge of something – painful memories, broken emotions, the closing of a chapter. Townes Van Zandt is an obvious touchstone in the way drama is gently harnessed and maintained across the song without resorting to a climactic ending. The pace is perfect, the notes hang heavy. Cross takes the stark closeness of the self-recording even further on opener ‘And the New York Rain Came Down’. His voice is tired, worn and cracking lending it a Bill Callahan or Will Oldham vulnerability as he paints economical vignettes over gently swelling strings.
‘Like A Scarecrow’ quickens the pace drawing maximum melody from his phrasing of the song’s title and it’s a worthy inclusion if only for the role it plays in pulling a different dynamic into the EP. The real gem here though is ‘Wild and Free’, a song so perfectly structured, sung and played that you won’t find many better this year. With lines like “the aircon was dripping into the blind man’s eye” and “the girls were singing top 40 songs” the song grips like a novel you can’t put down. Cross sings it like his life depends on it and the sadness and melancholy born from the dilemma of trying to rationalise reality versus the appeal of escapism resonates like loneliness on a long dark night.
Singing country songs isn’t rocket science, there’s a formula to follow and most trudge down the same worn route. The upside to that is that those who figure out how to dig in deep and convey their dreams, regrets and storytelling with genuine emotion quickly stand out to those who demand that from their music. Cross does just that and he’s fast becoming a fine writer and independent recording artist in the Americana realm.