Will Hoge needs your sympathy – he’s a “burned out junkie truck stop saint” with a “suitcase full of empty dreams” and a “head full of Hank Williams songs.”

Apparently, he also has a raging case of cliché bullshit syndrome.

Every scrap of press surrounding the Nashville-born singer promises things like straightforward rock’n’roll, blue-eyed soul and working-class sensibilities, none of which he commands. And though his bland songs are the Wonder Bread of the music industry, his website proclaims that he “eschews all gimmicks” and brings “energy and passion to an idiom that sometimes seems devoid of inventiveness.”

Exactly which idiom Hoge is trying to reinvent, however, remains a mystery. Hoge has been compared to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. But to say that Hoge sounds like Bruce Springsteen would be equivalent to declaring that eating at Olive Garden is no different from dining at a waterside trattoria in Venice.

Hoge sounds like everyone else: a trait that doesn’t bode well for him or his latest album Draw the Curtains. He casts his net wide and sucks in everything around him. He doesn’t sound like his influences (Otis Redding, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters), he sounds like he’s aping them.

Draw the Curtains sounds like a first effort, a stab at the majors. But Hoge has released two studio albums and almost a dozen live and independent cuts prior to this release. At this stage in a musical career, it’s time to grow up, find your sound and polish your craft. Instead, Hoge’s latest album sounds like the misguided endeavor of a singer-songwriter fresh from the college bar scene.

At his best, Hoge’s smoky voice is shaded with sincerity. The plaintive acoustic “I’m Sorry Now” and the title track thankfully sound less like the galumphing blues rip-offs that clutter the rest of the album, and are the best tracks on the disc for that reason. But at his worst, he slogs through a morass of tired blues riffs and awkward expressions. He forces his voice to growl and bend in places it shouldn’t.

“Washed by the Water” is almost insulting in its shameless derivation of everything from blues to gospel and back again. Hoge sings about the broken levees of New Orleans while backed by a boisterous choir and driving piano. This would be an acceptable topic if Hoge hadn’t seen fit to sing the song in an exaggerated vernacular that isn’t his own: “Damned old levy / Well they knew that it would go / Been talking ’bout it / since before my daddy’s born / Ain’t nobody listen to what a poor man has to say.”

His countrified slang and sense of solidarity with the city’s displaced inhabitants comes without any warning, and it seems disingenuous to toss in a song about a politically and racially-charged event in the middle of an album that sounds more like a long night of drinking than a call to social consciousness. It’s not his story to tell.

It isn’t the corny lyrics or pedestrian tunes that kill this album, it’s the fact that Hoge seems to have no idea who he is. He grasps at the idiosyncracies of other singers instead of taking hold of his own, and the result is abysmal.

On the album’s last track, “The Highway’s Home,” Hoge sings in a somber tone, “Fill the tank / I’m movin’ on . / I’m sorry honey / But this highway’s home.” But after digesting an hour’s worth of his bogus blues, there’s no need for Hoge to apologize – he just needs to leave.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Will Hoge

Draw the Curtains

Rykodisk

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