Wino & Conny Ochs, Heavy Kingdom: Days of the Highway Kind

There are few punches pulled, no real instances of trickery, and more than anything else, the crux of Heavy Kingdom seems to be the joy of the collaboration between Scott “Wino” Weinrich and Conny Ochs. Perhaps the most elaborate thing about Heavy Kingdom is the gorgeous foldout artwork in which Exile on Mainstream has encased the CD. That’s not a criticism of the album itself. Rather, the first joint offering from Wino & Conny Ochs seems to be purposefully geared toward as natural a presentation as possible, which if anything only feeds into the narrative of how the project came about – that it was born of Weinrich touring Europe with the German native Ochs supporting his first acoustic album, Adrift, that the two played together on the road and decided a joint release was in order. Ochs, whose aptly-titled album, Raw Love Songs, was released by Exile on Mainstream early in 2011, is clearly comfortable in the role of singer-songwriter, and the several instances where he takes the fore on Heavy Kingdom prove it. Songs like “Dust,” “Traces of Blood” and “Here Comes the Siren” probably won’t be what draw Wino devotees to Heavy Kingdom, but offer some of the record’s strongest material nonetheless, and as the balance between the two players shifts throughout the 11 tracks, it only feeds into the natural feel. Layering is minimal – some electric guitar makes its way into “Here Comes the Siren” and the earlier “Vultures by the Vines,” as well as elsewhere – and really, it’s just about two songwriters who wanted to work together working together. It’s as unpretentious as that.

It’s a relatively short outing too at 38 minutes, and between that and the vocal tradeoffs and duets between Weinrich and Ochs, Heavy Kingdom asks little indulgence of its audience and gives much melody in return. Opening with one of its strongest choruses in “Somewhere Nowhere” – a hard strum makes the song stand out aside for more than its being the longest inclusion on the album – the collaboration feels immediately rooted in folk, and comes across as less staid than was Adrift, as though Weinrich internalized the lessons of touring acoustic for the first time alongside both Ochs and Scott Kelly. Arrangements are relegated mostly to two acoustic guitars, but there are flourishes here and there, and more active moments such as the title-track (also reportedly the first song the two wrote together) show a kind of rocking energy underlying the pace. Likewise, there are parts – the chorus of closer “Labour of Love” or “Vultures by the Vines” – that feel informed by an intensity (certainly the latter with its distorted solo) purely Weinrich’s, but the patience in “Dust” or the gorgeously melodic “Traces of Blood” offsets that side of the album with serenity and emotionally complex melody. Some of the most effective parts of Heavy Kingdom come about when Weinrich and Ochs work to complement each other in the songwriting, be it Ochs backing Weinrich in the chorus of “Dark Ravine” or Weinrich doing the same on “Dust” or “Here Comes the Siren,” which with its added sense of foreboding is an exceptional outing in and of itself.

One of the most promising aspects of Heavy Kingdom as well is that it only gets stronger as it plays out front to back. “Here Comes the Siren” is the penultimate before the closer “Labour of Love” affirms the mission of the record, but already “Heavy Kingdom Jam” has shown the instrumental roots of the collaboration – two guitars jamming – and the Townes van Zandt cover “Highway Kind” has both reminded of the tour that brought about the Wino & Conny Ochs project and served as a contextual clue for influence. Followed especially by the Weinrich-vocalized “Dead Yesterday” – though there are clearly two guitars playing – before “Here Comes the Siren,” the progression of the second half of Heavy Kingdom and the joy expressed on the closer (“Labour of Love” is also pretty clearly a Wino riff, though even more fascinating if I’m wrong in that assumption) speaks to the potential for development should Weinrich and Ochs wish to keep the collaboration going or pick it up again at some future date. Their touring Europe together again nods at that potentiality, and the simplicity of these arrangements speaks to the potential for what could come later, but either way, as a document of the road work they’d already done on the road, and as an honest display of songwriting, Heavy Kingdom satisfies. Wino hounds who found themselves subsumed by the emotional weight of Adrift will find that mood revived on “Somewhere Nowhere” and “Dead Yesterday,” and Ochs effectively acts as the resident expert on the form of acoustic composition. The two are well matched.

Wino’s website

Conny Ochs’ website

Exile on Mainstream

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