Ryan Davis is tipping his beer to a world in moral and constitutional decline. Ruminating shortcomings, both inward and out, that seem to have settled into the standard, the Louisville-based journeyman defiantly declares he and his crew “the new vigilantes of the two-drink minimum” on “Free from the Guillotine,” the dryly pugnacious opener to Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band’s Dancing on the Edge, the latest and perhaps greatest notch in the storied songwriter’s belt. On the first work under his own name, the silver-tongued lyricist, known well to fans of his long-running outfit State Champion, Davis announces his arrival with the admission that he may have come for “just one fight,” gleefully winking and toasting a wasted millennial malaise over weary barstool blues and rugged, countrypolitan narratives.
Davis leads his band, comprised primarily of his fellow sonic expeditioners in Equipment Pointed Ankh, through country-rock jammers—dripping with pedal steel and knotty, ambling guitars—and spacey, electro-tinged indie pop laced with woozy synths and drum machine beats, Davis all the while, playing the (mostly) good-mannered barfly, the type with stories and prognostications that might as well as biblical as they are bullshit. He’s a dreamer, always making promises, waiting for the next number to hit, but his soggy wit spares no one, confessing on “Flashes of Orange” that “it’s getting longer, babe, the list of things I’d do for a buck / if I only had a Pepsi now for all the coke spilled in this truck.” On “Junk Drawer Heart,” we witness heartbreak projected onto a local bar jukebox purportedly hacked to only play Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” the unrelenting classic hook driving Davis to Gene Hackman in The Conversation levels of desperation, lost in his own paranoia, tearing everything to shreds in search of who’s got a tap on his soul. Davis sounds like, deep down, he’s hoping there’s something worthy of surveillance there, but seems perhaps just as easily resigned to keep turning over “joker cards and key chains,” content to continue playing the fool.
These existential crises glow in a galactic, chambered expanse on “A Suitable Exit,” where vast synths and a drum-machine shuffle float aside Davis and his just-rising, big-life thoughts, lamenting: “I never asked to be born, I was only wondering where the door went to” over sparkling, fuzzy winds. “We split the check for what the dead had barely touched,” he muses over visions of burning villages and homes engulfed in warm, pulsating keys and a sudden soar of strings, the sullen and the merry sharing a drink and a dance.
Davis ultimately seeks salvation on the closing “Bluebirds Revisited,” brooding orchestration swelling over a pedal steel’s cry. “I’ve been having not so bad of nightmares,” he allows, “but howling bloody murder in my daydreams.” It’s by all means darkest before the dawn here for our narrator, now “just trying to get to heaven, or whatever you call it,” a place he envisions where “the sun don’t set, it rises twice, happy hours are subject to market price, and the present just doesn’t seem so untimely.” It’s a devastating sentiment, one which Davis delivers with just the slightest crack in his droll, matter-of-factness. Likely sticking it out for just one more round, there’s always a chance things might turn up, or perhaps he’ll just keep drawing jokers until the deck runs dry. Regardless, it seems sure that Davis will remain steadfastly on the edge, ready to burn it all down if need be, playing and dancing on among the crackling decay. | c depasquale