299’s new album The 299 Game came from Welsh musician Gavin Fitzjohn’s travels across America “from Phoenix to Houston to Dallas to Tampa, out to New Orleans and way out in Joshua Tree”. Like a dragon running with the bison, Fitzjohn set out to soak up Americana recording on the move in order to capture sketches of his surroundings and flesh those out into this album. The result is an album filled with scuffed made up of “bowls, plates and boxes as percussion, a quarter as a guitar pick and a fistful of coins for shakers”.
On The 299 Game we have ten raw, mini masterpieces; one man and his guitar; a distorted drawl, some powerful tunes and deft country blues guitar playing. Opening track ‘True Blue You’ is the sun rising on the album, heat haze growing as the album starts to stretch its limbs. There’s the angry heartbreak on ‘Sugar and Spice’ and straight up nostalgia on ‘Truth or Consequence’, which could be a TV theme for a long forgotten 70s cowboy show, with its killer whistle-riff to open and sparsely used piano and twanged-up solo. ‘A Short Goodbye’ must have been written during a séance with Johnny Cash and other highlights include the low-slung menace of ‘Blue Island’ with its cardboard box drums, the Lou-Reed-in-a-meat-grinder vibe of ‘Get Wet’, the crumpled packet of Marlboro and Jack Daniels’ cocktail of ‘You Know Those Things You Wished For?’ and ‘It’s Not The Time’, which sounds like someone took a 60’s pop song and through it in a rock tumbler with some barbed wire for company. The Spanish-themed lament of final track ‘Watertown’ deserves its place in a Tarantino/Rodriquez film.
Like pancakes with syrup, or grits with your breakfast, 299 has served up a diner meal to fill up even the orneriest of cowboys and it’s like Gavin Fitzjohn has produced the album whilst lying on a Motel bed and cranking up the bed’s ‘Magic Fingers’ cycle to its highest setting. This is an album that is not afraid to sleep under the stars and get dirt under its fingernails. With so much music nowadays in the hands of super-producers/writers who all use similar arrangements, sounds, effects, compression and autotune it’s a glorious breath of fresh mountain air to have the DIY artists and small labels who, while they might enjoy financial success if it happened, make music not only for the love but through compulsion.
So, get on board with The 299 Game and ride the rails, travel the dusty plains, hole up in a motel and slide onto the bench seat of a Cadillac. This is not a Johnny Cash-in record, it’s a loving crafted set of songs that have been put through a ghost train and sandpaper filter. They are as jittery as strong diner coffee, as wide as the American plains and as dirty as a trucker’s mud flaps. And remember, no grit, no oyster.
Review by Paul F Cook