From Christopher Denny‘s story to the music on his second LP, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, it may seem a more appropriate album title would have been Jubilant or Jubilation. For starters (and if you were not already aware), If the Roses Don’t Kill Us is Denny’s first album in seven years. In the years between, Denny floated in and out of music, moved away from his birthplace of Little Rock, Arkansas to move in with his sister in California, and then returned to Arkansas to take care of his father. During this time, he and his wife were battling addiction to drugs and alcohol, and, as he told me after his set with Strand of Oaks in Montreal on Saturday, they were homeless.Things changed, though, one day when he received an email saying that Marlboro cigarettes were going to use two of us songs on their website, and he would be compensated. But instead of using the money to feed his and his wife’s habits, they used it as an incentive to change their lives. As Denny notes in his bio, “They sent me a check for $20,000. I told my wife we could use the money to get clean or die. We got clean.”
Denny doesn’t hide from these experiences; instead, he embraces them and he’s extremely grateful for the second chance. You can hear the jubilation in his voice when you speak to him and in the music that he plays. The album, as such, isn’t melancholic nor does it wallow in self-pity or even self-doubt. Rather, it’s an album about vindication and perseverance; a celebration of overcoming one’s troubles in order to start life anew. And while many of the songs are self-reflections about difficult times and relationships, the “Arkansas soul”, as Denny describes it, which is a mix of southern country, folk, folk-rock, gospel, blues, and hymnal sounds, and his Roy Orbison-Wayne Newton ethereal voice lift the album up to an almost euphoric state.
Take “Happy Sad”, for example, where Denny quickly summarizes his life and has no regrets. Played with a saloon vibe, he sings “I have a song that is happy and sad. Part of it is good. Part of it is bad. That’s o.k. That’s what I say. I love it anyway!” “God’s Height”, which speaks to Denny not living up to the expectations of a past lover, is upbeat and almost joyous. “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us”, with its New Orleans blues feel, has Denny talking about his own imperfections yet told in a celebratory fashion. “Some Things” is a rapturous tune about two immovable objects, yet again sung to an uptempo beat.
While throughout the album Denny speaks about himself or sometimes about God or another deity, they are not the heart of the album. Instead, it is his wife. He and his wife are, as he said to me, “inseparable. It’s tough to be apart from one another because we have gone through so much together.” You can hear it in his voice, the unwavering love he has for his wife. This is most noticeable on “Our Kind of Love”, which is sung with Erika Wennerstrom of the great and underrated The Heartless Bastards. Denny compares his wife to an uncut diamond, rough and tough and beautiful. “Love is a Cold Word” is about losing and finding love once again, which Denny has experienced.
There are slower numbers and none more beautiful than the finale, “Wings”, a salute to a loved one who has left the planet. It’s a song that he wrote years ago, but it’s a fitting end to this wonderful album, one about the afterlife and soaring to new heights and journeys. While slow and contemplative, it is yet hopeful and positive about the imprint one has left and what is to come. In many ways, it’s a summary of what Denny has been through and what awaits him.
Throughout the superb If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, Denny’s storytelling is true, honest, gritty, and without pretension. It is also inspiring, knowing that someone can fall far down to once again find success – not just professionally but within oneself. But as Denny continues to make music, hopefully he will be remembered and applauded for his talent and his music, as he so expressed in a recent interview with NPR Weekend Edition. And maybe at that point, his next album will truly be a milestone. It will be Jubilant.
If the Roses Don’t Kill Us is available now at Partisan Records, iTunes, and Amazon. Christopher Denny is currently touring with The Strand of Oaks. You can find tour dates on his Facebook page and take the time to meet this incredible individual.
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