Asbury Park trio Ragged Lines have returned with their best work yet: a 10-song debut full-length, “Hills & Valleys,” produced by the great Erik Case Romero. PHOTO BY KELSEY HUNTER AYRES
After two edgy indie-pop EPs since 2016, the Asbury Park trio Ragged Lines opted to live up to its name in a different way by going in a roots-rock direction with their debut full-length, “Hills & Valleys.” Yet, the pop inflections of such related bands as ROMP and Well Wisher still permeate the songcraft of vocalist-guitarist Carter Henry, bassist Lucas Dalakian and drummer Matt Viani, especially on the sweet opener “Shortcut,” which examines the pitfalls of love.
That trap continues with the more ragged “Keep Talking,” which equally facetiously and sincerely looks at a drunken conversation with a crush that the would-be suitor is trying to figure out if he regrets but knows he meant. While Ragged Lines apply salt ‘n’ vinegar to this track, unofficial fourth member, Ally Rose, a singer-songwriter originally from Bayonne, sweetens the mix with her vocals. They have been among the best in the New Jersey music scene since her days in the great New Brunswick alt-folk outfit Little Rose. Ally contributes to most of the other tracks as a part-time studio member of the band, including “Monica,” an oddly twisted breakup song that pairs raw emotion with a polished, acoustic-driven alt-folk sound. Ally’s sweet vocals underneath Carter’s warbly rant add to the disparity.
Throughout the 10-song album’s examination of various degrees and depression and alleviation from it, producer-engineer Erik Kase Romero also contributes performances to what is another excellent work among his two-time Makin Waves Award-winning Producer of the Year credentials. His organ work on “Back” is among the album’s most impressive moments.
The jangly “Wake Up Song” about missed opportunities, especially friendship, features spare but telling guitar work. It leads into “Hawaiian Shirt,” which turns Jimmy Buffett on his ear with surprisingly sad sounds and lyrics about existence within preferred isolation.
The upbeat-sounding basher “Little Something” saves the day as a modern-day rave-up about experimenting with amphetamines, but then comes “Goners,” a downer that continues the exploration of the sadness at the core of the album.
One of the best tracks is the single, “Hangin’ On,” which offers hope in the face of the sadness, as well as unrequited love. Power-poppin’ uses of nostalgia remind me of Fountains of Wayne and their late, great leader Adam Schlesinger. I especially love the chorus line: “These days are lost in between what’s real and what’s possible.”
Also outstanding is the closing “Waterfall,” a foreboding acoustic shuffle beautifully colored and shaded with haunting keyboard atmospherics and soulful organ bits by Erik.
As entertaining as it is thought-provoking, “Hills & Valleys” should appeal to a broad spectrum of music listeners. Fans of emo will appreciate the emotions expressed. Fans of power-pop will enjoy the exquisite song construction. Roots-rock lovers will dig the raw, ragged, organic dynamics mined throughout.