In a seemingly short period of time, singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly has established himself as an emerging artist worth keeping close track of. His 2018 Dying Star was one of the year’s standout Americana efforts and his latest, excellent release only ups the intrigue factor. Dirt Emo Vol. 1 is, perhaps surprisingly, pretty much exactly what the title hints it might be.
The collection of eight tracks features covers a wide swath of colorful terrain, with songs both well-known and far lesser known, old and new, hard-rock and old-school roots. Without doing an in-depth Google search, we’re going to guess this EP is among an incredibly tiny list of offerings featuring songs originally performed by the Carter Family and My Chemical Romance.
We’d say Dirt Emo is a sort of alt-country mixtape, except that once the seemingly disparate numbers have been guided through Ruston’s sonic filter, the record boasts an impressive cohesion one would think near impossible by simply viewing the track listing. Kelly’s youthful adoration of emo bands such as Taking Back Sunday, combined with the more country-leaning instruments his musician father kept around the house inspired the direction for the album, and the serious care he and his band apply to the often-rustic arrangements prove as much.
A re-worked “Teenage Dirtbag,” the rock radio hit from Wheatus in 2000 could’ve easily been hit with a tongue-in-cheek irony, but not here. Driven in a straight-forward acoustic direction, Kelly simply tells the story instead of stretching for an easy joke. For the cover of Saves The Day’s 2001 rocker “At Your Funeral,” Kelly and crew seem to be recording their intimate, front porch-feeling take inside a bathroom. To be clear, these are versions that stand alone and can be enjoyed without being familiar with the original artists or having ever stepped foot in a Hot Topic location.
The EP doesn’t ignore the country world. The aforementioned Carter Family is paid homage to with a gorgeous “Weeping Willow,” featuring a sleek, dreamy arrangement. It’s a modern take, and an interesting move, as it would’ve been entirely understandable to remain faithful to one of the originators of country music. On the opposite end of the country timeline, Kelly tackles Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well,” for the most polished song on the album. A steady beat slowly climbs before giving way to a cathartic climax.
One of Kelly’s musical heroes, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional sings with Kelly on the cover of Dashboard’s 2000 emo anthem “Screaming Infidelities.” With piano and pedal steel slowly, somberly drifting behind the voices, this version is what the best cover songs always are in that it’s a fresh, inventive re-working that doesn’t steal the native soul of the original offering.
As much as it does anything else, Ruston Kelly’s Dirt Emo Vol. 1 gives weight to the notion that great tunes can be twisted and tweaked in any number of ways, and in the proper craftsman’s hands, the song isn’t only still great, but perhaps even better.