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Review: Sam Outlaw, 'Tenderheart'

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Sam Outlaw: <em>Tenderheart</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Sam Outlaw: Tenderheart

Every artist working in the shadow of country music lineage since Willie and Waylon were first branded as "outlaws" has had that designation at their disposal. The same goes for marketing execs and music critics. "Outlaw" is useful shorthand, an expedient way of advertising a performer's resistance to mainstream norms and general aversion to docility. Often, it's paired with a brawny aesthetic.

The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw strikes a much more artful, low-key oppositional posture. At a moment when blustery machismo rules the White House, he's crafting a consciously softened identity. "I always found more honesty in the tenderness than the toughness," he recently told an interviewer. "I very much intentionally wanted to combat any expectation that I'm trying to be a tough guy country singer." And when he's asked why he chooses to stay in Southern California rather than relocate to Nashville, a scene populated with artful, independent folk-country troubadours like Andrew Combs, Caitlin Rose, Cale Tyson and Kelsey Waldon, he explains that he'd rather stay where he's the odd man out.

A couple of years back, Outlaw's debut, Angeleno, turned heads of Americana fans throughout the U.S. and Europe, and enabled him to walk away from a career in ad sales. His second album, Tenderheart, is an elegant expansion of that original template, one in which he makes considered use of lessons learned from Jackson Browne's genteel West Coast idealism, George Jones's grounded melancholy and the lusty flourishes of Dwight Yoakam, for whom he's opened shows.

Much of the time, Outlaw situates pensive romanticism within country-tinged arrangements that open onto scenic vistas, framed by delicate guitar and piano figures, sometimes even mariachi horns, the latter a holdover from Ry Cooder's involvement with his previous album. (Outlaw co-produced this one with Martin Pradler, who's engineered many of Cooder's projects.) Exceptionally serene and pleasing, Tenderheart is easy to get lost in. It's Outlaw's singing — all even-keeled sensitivity and reedy grace — that brings quiet clarity to the tracks.

Just two albums in, Outlaw's already become a refined songwriter, able to capture contradictions with simple gestures. In the steel-laced, soft-rock number "Bottomless Mimosas," he teases out the hollowness of a weekly routine that culminates in conspicuous indulgence. With its stately, hymn-like melody and sway, "Everyone's Looking for Home" serves as a reminder that finding a sense of calling won't banish all uncertainty from your life. You get the sense that he's just as likely aiming the message at himself as any other listener.

Outlaw ennobles a wounded heart's ability to love in the throwback country-rocker "Two Broken Hearts" and the tuneful Tom Petty-esque title track, but his gentlemanly demeanor doesn't preclude him from injecting acidic wit into the classic country sarcasm of "She's Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of)" and the deceptively mild and breezy-sounding narration of an ex's depravity that is "Now She Tells Me." "I'm not too likely to make you happy / I'll never really try," he intones over a twangy bossanova groove. "I'm much too busy / You'll always miss me / But I'll never leave your sight."

It's worth noting that the roles he takes on doesn't always come with a spotless conscience. In "Say It To Me," he's a guy who likes to play along with seductive delusions. In "Diamond Ring," the epitome of a windswept SoCal country ballad, his protagonist's brutal honesty deflates the romantic hopes of the woman he's slept with. And "Bougainvillea, I Think" is a fetching and otherwise chivalrous vignette of a young man's kindness toward an elderly neighbor, except for a telling detail: he can't recall her name.

To hear Outlaw glorify sincerity in such a clear-eyed way, awake to a larger world of needs, feelings and perspectives, is a marvelously welcome thing right about now.

Tenderheart is out April 14 on Six Shooter Records.

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