Instrumentally speaking, the new album from Ralph Nix & the Guilt Birds – titled Good Ingredients – tells us a story as grand as its lyrics do in surreal songs like “Cohay,” “Wish,” “Retold” and “Window Shopping”. Experimentally stylized but missing the overzealous pomp of a straight concept piece, Good Ingredients takes us on a melodic journey across the American south, and through its brilliantly crafted string arrangements, devilishly dark poetry, and striking mixture of influences from blues, country, soul, rock, and folk, it provides us the picture window into Americana that few LPs of its kind have in recent years. Rich harmonies are met with a heady blues accent in “Mercy Me,” we find an even deeper concept to be unraveled in the seemingly-simple “Stella,” and even in tunes like “Whiskey Drink’n Women,” Ralph Nix & the Guilt Birds are utilizing an urbane style of play that you just don’t find every day in this business.
There are a lot of layers to this mix, and next to most of the Americana that I’ve heard lately, it’s one of the more intricately designed albums from a production standpoint that anyone out of Nix’s scene has released in the last couple of months. “Call Me Baby” quakes the ground beneath our feet with the weight of its lyrics and what they mean from an emotional perspective, and Nix’s familiar southern croon only adds to the atmosphere developing in the background.
In “Marie,” the mood isn’t much different, but the strings and the soft sense of calm that accompanies them are so hypnotizing that it’s not possible to become overwhelmed by the depth of the dirge filling the air around us. Though progressive in some aspects of its construction, Nix is careful to avoid overstating the theme in Good Ingredients, with each of the songs presented to us here putting a different spin on a classic southern sound without getting too experimental in their framework. “Falls,” which preps us for the spellbinding “The Wish” at the end of the album, is made up of the most fundamental of components we could find in the great tradition of plaintive country music, and its superior catharsis inevitably winds up begging to come undone by the conclusion of the song. It’s not the bluesy, understated aggression of “Retold,” but that’s the whole point; Good Ingredients is indeed as diverse as the vast corner of our country that it celebrates with so much color and charisma.
After so many different offerings from their peers in 2021 and 2022, Ralph Nix & the Guilt Birds are going out of their way to drop what I would call a melodic masterpiece in Good Ingredients, and it’s an album that easily lives up to the focused and engaging tone of Nix’s album with the Catfish Gospel, Sins I Have Sown. If you’ve been disillusioned with the state of country music’s mainstream and a now irony-plagued singer/songwriter underground, you’d be wise to give this fine slice of southern charm a shot this January. It’s got all of the lyrical luster that Nix can muster, but boasts a more cerebral structure than anything he’s attached his name to before.