When Nathan Mongol Wells, the frontman and creative force behind Ottoman Turks, steps away from the band’s energetic persona for his solo debut album, From A Dark Corner, it becomes evident that he’s exploring a different facet of his artistic identity. Set to release on State Fair Records this year, Wells’ solo venture delves into introspective territories, distinct from the lively characters that populate Ottoman Turks’ vibrant songs.
Unlike the conspiracy-obsessed uncle, the self-conscious southern bro, the perpetually partying rocker, or even the vengeful spirit of JFK that inhabits Ottoman Turks’ tunes, Wells’ solo work emanates a sense of having spent a night locked in heated debates at a dimly lit Dallas dive bar. It’s as if he has finally found solace, retreating to a quiet corner of his home, a glass of well-aged tequila in hand, to silence the cacophony of voices echoing in his mind.
Ottoman Turks, renowned through accolades from Rolling Stone and the Dallas Morning News, boasts an impressive catalog of two distinct studio albums and over a decade’s worth of performances that have numbered in the thousands. Among its members, guitarist Joshua Ray Walker and bassist Billy Law have each embarked on successful solo careers, but at its core, Ottoman Turks is Wells’ brainchild. While Walker delved deeper into his Country influences and Law produced poignant, literal ballads, “From A Dark Corner” presents a deeper exploration into the man responsible for the Turks’ cinematic universe.
This debut album, produced in collaboration with John Pedigo and described by Walker as “fervorous,” retains the chaotic essence of Wells’ previously crafted characters, albeit in a less raucous manner. From A Dark Corner stands as a testament to Wells’ evolution, embracing an autobiographical approach that lends a more traditional and honest perspective to his music.
Wells, who adopted the moniker “Mongol” from his high school fascination with the intercontinental Mongol Rally, considers this project a direct expression of himself when he’s in the act of singing. The result is a unique blend of whimsy and darkness, a style reminiscent of Roger Miller, where Wells skillfully intertwines lighter tones with the weightier themes he addresses.
This distinctive musical fusion may be attributed to Wells’ formative years, spent on the fringes of Dallas’ eclectic musical haven, Deep Ellum. His influences, spanning from The Strokes to Tom Waits and Hayes Carll, have left an indelible mark on his artistic sensibilities. Wells, however, acknowledges that his inherent restlessness might prevent him from crafting songs intended for quiet, introspective moments.
From A Dark Corner retains the essence of the Americana genre, yet it is characterized by a deliberate avoidance of the mundane, much like Wells’ entire body of work. His voice, devoid of menace, possesses the uncanny ability to infuse whimsicality into his darker themes, an alchemy that can be likened to the charm of Roger Miller.
The album opens with “Beulah Land,” the first song Wells penned for the collection, a sinuous and foreboding track that grapples with loss. Rather than focusing on romantic relationships, this piece delves into the disintegration of a friendship, which Wells views as even more devastating. The darkness extends to “Taken For A Ride,” where the narrator’s intentions are shrouded in uncertainty, mirroring the turmoil of making and breaking unfulfilled promises and the broader process of self-discovery.
Among Wells’ standout compositions, “First Day It’s Warm” is a tribute to the end of winter in Texas. Delighting in childlike references and the relative mildness of Texas winters, the song champions the surrender to personal impulses. Inspired by Wells’ time living with Law and Ottoman Turks drummer Paul Hinojo in a house humorously dubbed “Turks’ Mansion,” the track pays homage to their humble beginnings, marked by plasma donations and wiffle ball games in the front yard.
“Juarez” seamlessly blends into an Ottoman Turks album, while “Rather Go To Hell” provides a modern twist on Johnny Paycheck’s anti-work anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It.” “Honest Drinking” and “Two Heads” encapsulate the album’s winking nihilism.
Similar to Walker, Law, and other Dallas-Fort Worth musical trailblazers like Charley Crockett, Old 97s, Toadies, Cliffs, Squeezebox Bandits, and Eleven Hundred Springs, Wells’ music is a product of over a decade of live performance. For Wells, the act of performing remains an unparalleled joy, an aspect that has endured through the evolution of his sound.
The title “From A Dark Corner” might imply a somber tone, yet those who have witnessed Wells’ live performances understand his uncanny ability to weave his audience into a dance-induced trance. This paradox only fully emerges upon contemplation as Wells swiftly transitions from one song to the next, leaving little room for pondering.
In essence, Nathan Mongol Wells’ solo debut, From A Dark Corner, captures an artist navigating the labyrinthine corridors of his own psyche. It reflects a departure from the animated characters that populate Ottoman Turks’ energetic anthems, a journey into the introspective recesses of a musician’s mind, poised to unravel deeper layers of emotion and experience. As his artistry continues to evolve, Wells’ ability to craft music that resonates at the crossroads of whimsy and darkness remains a captivating force.
Nathan Mongol Wells was a recent guest on the Midwest Mixtape Podcast. Give it a listen here or anywhere you get your podcasts.
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