Artist Interview/Album Review: Dougie Poole – ‘The Rainbow Wheel of Death’
Posted: by The Editor
Country music has been on an uptick recently. And no, not the stadium country that you hear on beer commercials, or the kind that’s sung by a former front man of an 80’s hair metal band. We’re talkin’ real, true blue, outlaw country that you can play while either driving your truck with the windows down or while crying into a glass of whiskey. Songs filled with slide guitar and lap steel are making more appearances in the arsenal of young rock and folk bands. Lyrics that tell a story about romance or personal hardships, or just about being a loner are being sung with a crisp yodel. The genre is coming back in a big way, but one of the unsung modern heroes of its redemption arc is singer/songwriter Dougie Poole.
Dougie has been releasing country music since 2016, upending the genre with his first LP, the lo-fi “bedroom” country record Wideass Highway. However, his most recent full-length project, 2020’s The Freelancer’s Blues, was his most impressive. It’s a country record for the modern burnt-out millennial; detailing humorous but relatable stories within the lyrics of almost every track. For instance, “Vaping on the Job’s” three-part narrative about the sinking feeling you get every so often while working the boring day job you took in place of following your dreams, the ups and downs of the dating app circuit on “Natural Touch,” or desperately waiting for a facetime call from a long-lost love on “Claire.” Not only does it hit home lyrically, but the classic country instrumentation—lap steel, slide guitar and finger picked banjos—were elevated with modern flares, such as vaporwave style drum machines and synthesizers.
It has only been about 3 years since The Freelancer’s Blues, but a lot has changed for Dougie. He’s moved out of Brooklyn, and has his life balanced between being a country singer and a part time coder, a gig he picked up after realizing touring in 2020 wouldn’t be possible.
“When the pandemic started, I just got scared. I got a full-time job as a coder for an underwear website,” Poole says. “It’s a nice balance. I think the dream is to be a full-time musician, but I’m still figuring it out if that’s a good structure for me.”
Even though his life became more traditional, Dougie made sure to keep up with his musical endeavors. “In my mind, I feel like I should be making a record every 3 years” he says. “I took time off every once and while to write little bits, but after a year and a half I decided it was time to crank something out.”
Enter Dougie’s fantastic new album, The Rainbow Wheel of Death. The songs play into his day-to-day life, the album title even taking its name from the MacBook “wait” cursor that pops up when your screen freezes. You can tell he’s matured, leaving the narrative stories behind for a more personal and poetic approach to his lyrics and songwriting. “I got out of my head a little bit on this one, I wasn’t so obsessed with everything making sense and being coherent,” Poole says.
Its most evident on the serene yet tragic “Nothing On This Earth Can Make Me Smile,” where Poole seems to find a dark cloud always peering over what brings him comfort, singing lines such as “I like my coffee mild, trouble stacks like dishes in a crooked pile,” overtop of delicate, acoustic guitar focused instrumentation. The title track strikes a similar vein with its lyrics, “the spin is all I know, waiting here for so long for something good” complacently sung over upbeat and bouncy acoustic guitar strums. Its theme music for the cubicle-burrowed every-person who works a 9 to 5, whether its one they like or not.
Not only have the lyrics matured, but so did the way Dougie approached making the record itself. Instead of writing and recording songs in front of his computer, he takes a more natural approach on The Rainbow Wheel of Death, utilizing a full band and a recording studio, working to cut out the need for overdubbing.
“I wrote this record in a shorter period, mostly on a guitar. I spent so much time already at my computer, I didn’t want to be on a computer while I was working on music.” Poole says. “The first two records, I wrote sort of in piecemeal. Writing everything bar by bar, part by part, filling things in here and there myself. This time, I didn’t have the time to take control of all that stuff, it’s exhausting. I just let go and let [the band] be in control of their own parts and instruments.”
The “jamming out” that usually happens when a full band is in a room together starts to really come out in full force on the freewheeling “Worried Man Blues,” a thumping track about having one foot out the door at your job, or your relationship. It’s as classic sounding a country song can get, even boasting dueling acoustic slide guitar solos where you can hear every little string buzz. “When the bulk of the things are happening at once, you get a much better sense of [the room]. You can hear all the little imperfections.” Poole says.
As a result of cutting out the overdubs, there aren’t as many synthesizers or drum machines as on his previous records, apart from “High School Gym,” the album’s first single and outlier. In the song, Poole details a recurring dream he’s been having, in which all his loved ones who have passed on gather in his high school gym to ask if he can bring them back. While having a darker theme, the melody is a Tom Petty inspired earworm, much like the deep synth line that slithers its way through the song’s entirety.
Dougie also hasn’t forgotten how to write about romance in the social media age, either. The album’s crown jewel, “Must Be in Here Somewhere,” is a love song that revolves around the reliability of a smart phone, or “memories, in a digital and non-digital context,” as Dougie puts it. He’s frantically searching for an old text message that may prove something to himself, singing “get every server burning in North Carolina, trying to find the message you wrote,” like a 21st century Elvis whose iPhone is about to reach full data usage.
“I’ve been trying recently to take time away from the screens, but I feel utterly resigned to it. There are probably people with better relationships with it than me, but it would be disingenuous to write as if my life occurs outside of it entirely. I don’t really think it’s a good or bad thing,” he says.
Dougie isn’t necessarily an “outlaw,” who writes “outlaw country” music. He doesn’t rob taverns of their loot, and his face isn’t on “wanted” posters. He’s just a regular guy who eats lunch in his car, works part time in tech, and wishes he could spend more time away from his phone. He’s familiar with the mundane parts of life like most of us, but his talent to write honest songs about those moments and make them engaging, even inspiring, is what makes him one of the best voices in the genre.
Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal
The Rainbow Wheel of Death is out February 24 via Wharf Cat Records.
Nate Cross | @BigNafey
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