Hailing from rural north Florida, Caleb McLeod allows his life experiences to color his songwriting and musical palette. His talents have been honed over several years, with McLeod fronting for now-defunct rock outfit Capitol Speedway to the more collaborative bar scene effort Big Whiskey. McLeod brings those years of experience to bear on his solo debut, Reckless, with a country-rock sound that’s a little more Shooter Jennings than Waylon and is a perfect stage for this artist’s talent. Those skills have him displaying far more than barroom bravado, offering up some compelling songwriting accompanied by solid musical chops.
“No Love Song” kicks the album off with a mid-tempo beat and a lovelorn lyric that lets McLeod really chew on the words right away. It allows him the chance to establish his vocal at the outset, colored with the slightest rasp and recalling a bit of an early Chris Daughtry at times. “Castle Walls” is much more traditional country, as the artist’s protagonist struggles to break down his lover’s defenses while “Bad News” taps heavily into the blues, conjuring images of Watermelon Slim with its harmonica heavy backdrop and near-growled lyrics. Some solid guitar fills round out the sound and continue McLeod’s expansion of sonic exploration.
He has more to offer as “New York” rolls and lets the singer-songwriter in himself show. Subtle instrumentation lays the foundation for the artist’s tale of lovers falling apart that is reminiscent of early work by Edwin McCain as he sings: “When it’s over/Where you gonna go/When you’re tired of all the places/The faces you don’t know?” Keeping the geography lesson going, he offers up “Texas” next, a rough-hewn rocker that keeps the toe tapping and paints the artist with some rebel colors on lyrics like, “I ain’t worried ‘bout my situation/’Cause I think I’ll be better on my own/I ain’t worried ‘bout my reputation/’Cause I been trouble since the day that I was born.”
“Waste of Time” is another slow jam with a great lyric (“When I’m gone, you’ll know what lonely is”) while “One Way Track” delivers a shuffling beat that fits the railroad metaphor McLeod employs. “Cigarettes and Whiskey” is straight-up honky tonk country, flavored with tasteful flourishes of steel guitar and lonely harmonica, despite being one of the lower points vocally. McLeod rights the ship quickly with “If You Ain’t Coming Back,” an aching tale of lost love set against an easy ambling rhythm that builds to a killer vocal crescendo that shows what this artist truly can bring.
“This Is Hell” keeps the vocal prowess going, raw and gritty as “The River” sets a moody devil-may-care tone with a rise and fall verse to chorus play. “Drift Away” rises with honest lyrics and plaintive vocals while “Maybe Memphis” picks up the pace with another set of shuffling guitars and steady percussion. “Last Words” steps back out of country material again, resonating with a pop rock ballad of longing for redemption that is an album standout as album closer and title track pits the artist against a lone piano with satisfying results.
While not a perfect release, marred by some occasionally unstable vocals and predictable soundscapes, Caleb McLeod’s Reckless is nonetheless a diamond in the rough, showcasing a his solo talent in its early days. With solid instrumentation and a lyrical talent that keenly captures both pictures of the eye and heart, McLeod plows forth with honesty and grit here. It’s a formula that, with just a little tweaking, has the potential to carry him from the backwoods of Tallahassee to radio waves everywhere.
Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)