Like many musicians and listeners of his generation, Randy Dean Whitt seems unimpressed by genre distinctions. In the past, Whitt has explored a broad swath of music, cutting from country and twangy rock to strummy folk and roots jams. For Whitt, moving from rustic, raw Americana to the gentle mannerisms of '70s singer-songwriters has been as easy as moving to the next track. On The Outsider, his fifth album and first since 2007's The Good, the Bad and the Grits, Whitt again pairs transgression and charm, often evoking a mild Laurel Canyon-tinged sound that recalls Ron Sexsmith and Gary Louris but never allowing that tag to limit his milieu.
This tone is most evident in a centerpiece trio of songs, starting with the third track, "Neverending." It's as if Wes Miles, frontman of far-flung indie rock band Ra Ra Riot, fronted a jazzy adult pop act. Cello-driven album highlight "Angels Have Sinned" recalls the supple drama of Murder By Death while mining a similar vein of shadowy foreboding. (Notably, it features a whip-smart electric solo from Whitt, which he does too infrequently considering how well he plays here.) The final piece of this triptych is "Vagrants and Vandals," which hinges on the disc's most indelible hook and alights in the same country canyon frequented by The Eagles.
Whitt isn't alone here: Nathan Golub's pedal steel keys much of the album. His talent's well-established in local circles, but the color he adds (without overplaying) allows The Outsider to remain understated without turning pallid. (Editor's note: Nathan Golub is an employee of the Independent Weekly.) The album is dedicated to the memory of drummer Matt Brown, whose tight, swinging push gives the album its momentum, despite the stylistic sway of the songs.
The last half comes dotted with dark-horse favorites that again push the presumed boundaries of such rootsy encampments, whether it's the loping organ-driven number "Sundown & Devils" or the Dead-inflected lovelorn closer, "Write a Book." The Outsider is a welcome return fueled by a loose, unaffected energy that suggests fun—not stylistic limitation—was the cardinal consideration.