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“I was a rambler, but I don’t remember why” – so goes the chorus of the first song on Hank Topless’ “It’s So December,” an album that looks at life with a bit of weariness, plenty of humor and a sharp eye for honest details.

Topless plays classic country, with some blues around the edges, with skilled guitar playing and a rich voice that rings with a bit of Willie Nelson.

Topless doesn’t so much stray from the conventions of country music as he does find new ways to make those same old traditions sing again. This is country music fresh for 2012, with sly, occasionally twisted songwriting. Recorded at Loveland Studio with Nathan Sabatino and Thomas Beach, “It’s So December” is nine songs in 32 minutes, featuring blues harp from Kevin Bowman, mandolin from Donny Russell and fiddle from Phil Stevens.

Opener “Remember Why” sets the tone perfectly; twangy guitar leading the way on a tale of strange people, old flames and the years of traveling that all just blend together into one question – “Can I untangle places in my lonely mind?”

Next up is the heartbreaking “Waitress,” a remarkable character sketch of a woman who “spends every Friday night in sensible shoes,” living a life stripped of glamour, planted in repetition, stuck with dreams that are always more than just a few more bar shifts away. “Midnight don’t bring no revelations,” Topless sings, relating the fantasies of escape that are just about all she has left.

The duo of “Mockingbird Blues” and “Just For The Record” anchor the album’s back half, and taken together, the songs are a beautiful reminder from Topless that life has darkness and light, desire and mistakes, sadness and sweetness. And sometimes, the way through is the way of the mockingbird: “Don’t matter if you sing the truth or if you sing a lie.”

Published Jan. 1, 2012 in Zócalo.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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