Cool American, Better Luck Next Year (Strange Ranger)

The modern world's a tough place for guys with feelings and acoustic guitars (trust me, I've been there). The male singer/songwriter trope is pop music's limpest appendage; every day, some brand-new flannel-clad, beard-core dope will pick up a six-string he's affectionately named "Dakota," and try his hand at writing some songs, man. And every day, he will, for the most part, fail. If you want to be visible in a musical genre saturated with garbage, you need real chops.

Chops don't come much realer than Nathan Tucker's. He's the man behind the moniker Cool American, whose new album Better Luck Next Year is one of the best one-voice, one-instrument records produced by a Portland artist in years. Elliott Smith allegedly hated having his music categorized as folk, and I imagine Tucker's reaction would be similar—many of these songs are at the mercy of their minimalist arrangements, and Tucker's selection of weird chords and bold melodies imply pop ambition owing to the Beach Boys or XTC rather than preemie-dad rock bands like Iron and Wine. The songs sound this way not because Tucker is trying to nurture any sort of log-cabin, four-track-and-a-broken-heart illusion. He's just working with what he's got.

Better Luck Next Year is a collection of terrific pop songs, whose subject matter occupies the middle overlap of the Venn diagram separating the utterly relatable from the uncomfortably personal. "Kitchen Table" is a heart-shattering tribute to a terminally ill relative, which sounds like a song Jon Brion never wrote for a movie David O. Russell never directed. "Self-Care" is a checklist of New Year's resolutions that reads like a considerably less funny version of Wreckless Eric's "Personal Hygiene." And "Picking Sides" evokes Elliott Smith specifically, in its ghostly beauty and labyrinthine chord changes that are neither happy nor sad. All in all, it sounds like Tucker had a pretty shitty 2015—which just may have resulted in the first great Portland record of this year.

Cool American opens for Sioux Falls at their tour kickoff on Thursday, January 14, at 6 pm at PSU's Smith Hall. Better Luck Next Year comes out on tape via Strange Ranger Records the same day.