Donny Besancenez has a really lovely voice. He fronts Junebug with a clear, resonant presence that never seems to hit a bum note on his band's debut Dead Horse, and his slight twang saddles up to the soft-touch honky-tonk on the album's dozen songs. It's the kind of voice that sounds like it was made for the stage -- if not the stage at your neighborhood rock hall, then the local revival of Oklahoma!
Along with harmonic foil Jaime Dollar and a trio of apt, supportive musicians, Besancenez treads the line between Heartland Americana and straight-ahead pop country. The boy/girl harmonies are much more Blake & Miranda than, say, June & Johnny, and the lyrics (a mix of small-town nostalgia and romantic steadfastness) shoot for the big heart of modern country, a place of clear-cut morals and familiar storylines. It is to the band's credit that the performances and production minimize the fluff and let the vocals shine through.
But here's the catch with Besancenez's really lovely voice: It doesn't modulate or emote over the course of these twelve songs, which range from country strummers to ballads to down-tempo introspection. His lyrics cast a wide enough net, but his voice treats every line with the same clarion precision. Dollar, for her part, eases into certain lines with a little more intuition, as on the somewhat clumsy duet "Hand in Hand." The next track, "Truly Blue," is a better performance from both singers and is matched with a soulful, loping arrangement. Jim Comparato has a pocketful of sharp, trebly guitar licks that he sprinkles liberally across the album, and on this song he lets the tremolo take over and plucks out dulcet notes that hover in the ether. The band can cook when the tempo picks up, and a song like "Country Fried," a love letter to simple rural pleasures, hits a little of that Zac Brown Band action. "It was an innocent time," Besancenez sings. That sums up quite a lot about Dead Horse -- both the simplicity and romance in these songs is largely unburdened, and that makes for easy, if unchallenging, listening.
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