You might initially think AJ Guel is another kind of strident male singer like Jason Aldean or some kind of rugged guy that’s gonna run you over. The opening and title track of his album ‘Real No One’ kind of makes you think he’s got that uber confidence thing going. “I am what I am” he sings declaratory in a rollicking opening track that’s hard hitting and guitar heavy. In “Texan By The Grace of God,” he lets us know he’s “American By Birth, Texan by the grace of God,” of his natural born progeny and inherent rugged individualism.
But first impressions can be deceiving. When two songs into the album he begins the beautiful melody of “Runaway Tonight,” you realize you’re in for something different. Guel tapers the initial bravado with old fashioned melodies, songs with romantic longings and plenty of fiddle and pedal steel accents to sway your country heart. The album is a refreshing display of authenticity and re-assurance that there are still young male singers who are capable (and interested thankfully) in making real music in a world gone bro.
Guel’s cover showing him displaying an acoustic guitar seems like a statement of sorts for the Texas State University graduate who made his debut from a Kickstarter campaign. Guel’s deep, muscular but soothing voice and twang takes pleasure in getting the most out of his savoring and massaging the words, and extending the syllables as much a possible in songs rich in language and narrative.
In “Texan By The Grace of God,” he gives you an autobiographical glimpse of growing up around Gulf Coast beer joints and the waters of the bay. Guel recalls staying out Friday nights growing up and being back up in the morning to work in the fields. He details two-steppin’ on Cheatham Street in “Time Machine” and in “Make Me Wanna Dance,” charms a girl to slow dance while expressing disbelief of a world too fast that’s “never heard an old Conway song.”
Guel relies on old tried and true themes. “Runaway Tonight” is a classic boy takes girl away song to leave their troubles behind. And in “Before That Cowboy Fell In Love,” the drunken single guy who never thought of settling down has his life forever changed upon meeting that one girl. But the charms of each, in the signature fiddle playing of Haydn Vitera and pedal steel of Danimal Johnson become integral parts of the soundtrack of Guel’s storytelling. I especially like the way Guel uses third-person narrative to tell the tried and true tale of love and life changes.
My favorite song on the album is “Jaded” where Guel’s plea to a girl not to mistake him for the other guys who have lied to her is infectiously catchy and clever. Guel delights in the rhythmic tempo of his plea and then hooks you line and sinker with that lazy Texan accent, “you don’t have to be jaaaaaaded,” he sings, getting the most he could possibly get out of the one word.
Guel’s wears his influences on his sleeve that may include the Charlie Daniels Band, Molly Hatchet to some degree and the Marshall Tucker Band. Whether conscious or not, “Time Machine” is a direct descendant of MTB’s signature single “Heard It In a Love Song” and I hear the nuances of “Twenty Four Hours At a Time” in “Texan By The Grace of God.” The prominence of fiddle as lead instrument against thunderous guitars filled in with pedal steel lines is ground laid by previous generations and here to delight again.
Apart from its inherent charms, ‘Real No One’ may have another utility. At a time when a good number of Texans are convinced a federal government invasion is coming, AJ Guel’s soothing love songs might be an antidote to remind that everybody needs to calm down a little.