That Santa Fe Channel, the second and latest album from the Nashville-based Cordovas, opens with “This Town’s a Drag,” Joe Firstman’s drawly vocal setting the project’s tone, a wry performance reminiscent of Todd Snider circa East Nashville Skyline. “Selfish Loner” highlights the band’s talent for crafting harmonies, a tip of the hat to The Byrds, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, et al. “Talk to Me” showcases the band’s notable chemistry and cogency, rhythms and melodic accents that draw loosely from Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street.
While the band doesn’t assert a consistently distinct sound, vocal tone, or lyrical bent, they do achieve moments of fresh gestalt, passages in which they make evident their potential, meanwhile never severing or in fact straining their ties to fundamental influences. The intro to “I’m the One Who Needs You Tonight,” for example, could be the opening to any number of radio-friendly, country-rock tracks from the '70s, though the band quickly segues into less traceable territory, adopting a hummable and less derivative melody, well-textured harmonies, and instrumental segments that, while clearly referenced from the country and rock how-to manuals, offer ample opportunity for Sevans Henderson on piano and Lucca Soria and Toby Weaver on guitar to display their considerable, albeit contained, skills.
“She put her hand in my coat, wouldn’t let go / Let me know when you change your mind again,” Firstman sings on “Santa Fe,” a wistful evocation of loss and longing accomplished through minimal and precise portraiture. The velvety vocal on “Your Town” reminds me of Jerry Garcia, spry guitar and Graham Spillman’s shuffling percussion nudging the tune along. The album ends with “Step-Back Red,” a tribute to prototypical Southern rock bands such as Lynryd Skynyrd that are both direct influences and sources encountered in reconfigured form via Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, and The Drive-By Truckers, among others.
Missing for me on this album is the more unbridled instrumentation present on the 2012 debut. Also, while that album was grounded in Americana formulae, it displayed a more complex, expansive, and, at moments, transcendent relationship with the genre, à la Cotton Jones, early Dawes, or The Avett Brothers. That Santa Fe Channel is a work of indisputable proficiency, making use of perennially reliable vocal, instrumental, and lyrical elements; at the same time, neither straddling nor leaping any fences, per se, and occurring as unwaveringly locatable within respectable and recognizable parameters. This to say, I’m not sure that the album advances the band aesthetically; it may, conversely, represent a slight contraction. Still, there’s nothing wrong here, and for devotees of mainstream Americana, That Santa Fe Channel is an album that should be added to the listening list, one that will provide some oomph to a Saturday night or serve as an apt soundtrack while driving across America on one of those long, flat highways.