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Rich Layton and Tough Town perform Saturday night at Secret Society in Portland. Photo by Wes Youssi
Rich Layton and Tough Town perform Saturday night at Secret Society in Portland. Photo by Wes Youssi

Rich Layton walks down Salvation Road

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Gritty and full of passion, "Salvation Road" hits hard and fast.

An old adage in the music biz is an artist gets a lifetime to write their first album, but only a year to write their second. Someone forgot to mention this to Rich Layton, who has a formula that breaks the mold in several fundamental ways.

Layton released his first album "Tough Town" eight years ago and will be releasing his second this May on the Portland-based label Never Lucky Records. To support the album "Salvation Road", Layton and his band Tough Town will be playing an album release party Saturday night at Secret Society.

The Tough Town album got off to a great start, earning some early praise and significant airplay, before Layton had to put the project on hold due to an inner ear issue that left him unable to perform. Following a successful surgery, Layton spent 18 months recovering, wondering if he would be able to return to music.

Out of this experience, he penned Live to Rock, which is the first track on "Salvation Road". The song

is a bold exclamation of determination and perseverance, without making any apologies:

So set the bar / Just a little bit higher / Watch me when I hit the stage / I guarantee / You'll see a man on fire / Actin' bout half his age

From its opening hard-driving guitar riff, Live to Rock sets the stage for a wonderful album that showcases Layton's skillfully penned lyrics, harmonica chops, and arranging skills. Gritty and full of passion, "Salvation Road" hits hard and fast as it follows Layton's path of musical redemption.

Given the material covered by the songs, what Layton describes as "mini-movies", it isn't surprising that some of them have a gospel-like feel, especially Raise It Up Or Burn It Down with its haunting reverberating toms, backing church choir-like vocals, and caustic lyrics taking dead aim at corporate self-interest and the political divide between the haves and have-nots. Lyrically, the song quite ably holds its own against the likes of James McMurtry, who tackles similar material.

Chalk it up mostly to personal preference, but my biggest quibble with the album is the sonic handling of the vocals, which places them more subtly in the mix than necessary. Lofty material like this deserves to be front and center vocally, grabbing the listener with all the power behind them. Instead, at times the album can artificially put a distance between the material and listener, with vocals that almost seem removed as in the track The Dude Abides.

Don't let that observation deter you from taking a listen to the album, though, as it is a delightful journey down a road everyone has to take at one point or another.

We can only be so fortunate as to end up where Layton and the album do on its final track, Take a Giant Step, the only cover on the album. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the song provides a fitting ending to the album:

"Come with me I'll take you where / The taste of life is green / And every day holds wonders to be seen / Come with me, leave yesterday behind / And take a giant step outside your mind."

ON TOUR: Rich Layton and Tough Town, Saturday, March 23 9PM, doors 8:30PM. Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., Portland. Sister Mercy will be opening. Tickets are still available as of this writing.

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Rich Leighton

I've never heard of this band, but the singer sure has a badass name!

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