Jersey Shore great Cranston Dean always has reminded me of Jackson Browne because there are both organic-sounding multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters with an eloquent penchant for rhyme amidst every-day stories for everyone. “Toe the Line,” the opening track of Cranston’s latest album, “Northern Town,” is a perfect example of his Jackson sensibilities. In this case, it’s post-‘70s, plugged-in Jackson ala “Boulevard” and “Somebody’s Baby,” but I was psyched to feel that vibe right from the get go on “Northern Town,” because Jackson is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I feel the same way about Cranston at a local level.
Intentionally misspelled, “Toe the Line” is a cascade of rhythms on which a tale of being forced to grow up rides. Cranston navigates the challenges — educational, relational, health — vividly and earnestly. The excellent opener is made even better with a meaty guitar solo by longtime Cranston sideman Riley Schiro.
The journey through “Northern Town” continues with “Diamonds In The Dust,” a gripping indictment of the rat race propelled by unjust and unfair political, economic and justice systems. In a nod to the black community most often impacted by the subsequent disparity, Cranston uses a rap-inspired vocal delivery, the staccato of which is paired perfectly with his bouncy, Allen Toussaint-like piano.
Fans of classic and roots rock will love all six of the albums Cranston has released since 2013, but “Northern Town” may be his best yet. So it’s fitting that his best-ever song, the 2008 standalone single, “The Root,” is included and continues to sound like a cross between the beautiful, meaningful lyrical leanings of Jackson Browne and the sassy Americana of John Hiatt with lots of gospel goodness thrown in for good measure. With a sad beauty, the soulful song looks at how the foundation of America’s freedoms and ideals are crumbling from the decay of ignorance, apathy and greed.
The Dr. John-inspired title track is next with a bit of piano-driven voodoo peppered with spicy Latin rhythms and stylings by drummer Shane Luckenbaugh. “Peace” then offers a beautiful love song featuring two stunning Blackwood flute solos by fellow multi-instrumentalist Max Carmichael in between which the African instrument provides a reggae rhythm usually associated with guitar.
The 10-song album continues with “Carolina,” another tune that has a Jackson Browne vibe, this time on the early side along the lines of “Ready or Not.” Next up is “Get Away,” a funky folkadelic nugget that Deadheads especially will enjoy because of Riley’s bubbly Jerry García-like guitar playing.
The tasty platter of “Northern Town” all-too-soon draws to a close with the jangly croon of “Shades,” the gospel-drenched soul of “Fingernail Moon,” featuring exceptional interplay between bluesy guitars and a Hammond B-3, and “Time To Go,” Cranston’s healthy, positive and downright adventurous views on death. On the confessional closer, his bouncy Fender Rhodes is well supported by Max’s gorgeous dobro playing.
Recorded in Atlantic Highlands by Michael Young & Cranston with gear from North Shore Studio in Owls Head, Maine (perhaps the inspiration for the title track), “Northern Town” also features fine support from bassist Pat Conley and backing vocalists Alex Mack and Allan Dean, who add to those by Riley, Shane and Pat. Alex also provided the artwork for the album, which was mixed by Pat Noon at Eightsixteen in South River and mastered by Alan Douches at West West Side in Hudson Valley, N.Y.
Cranston, his band, and other friends will celebrate the release of “Northern Town” on May 28 at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park. Sharing the bill will be The Mercury Brothers, Emerson Woolf, and Jackson Pines for whom Cranston is the drummer-mandolinist.
For more about Cranston, visit https://www.cranstondean.com.