With Feast or Famine, Chuck Ragan has gone where a lot of aging rock frontmen have gone before him. This is not the post-hardcore sound of his band Hot Water Music; Feast or Famine is a solo effort and it's full-on folk rock with a strong leaning towards an Irish folk sound. There's fiddles and accordions galore, harmonicas and banjos, and an ever-present foundation of driving acoustic guitars.
“Boat,” the first track, is a haunting tune with dark lap steel guitars, and Ragan's gravelly voice tears through the music with passion reminiscent of Mark Lanegan's early solo work. That haunting feel is lost quickly, however, as the album transitions rapidly into foot-stomping, dark beer-slogging Irish-mode. “California Burritos” is perhaps an overly authentic Irish pub song: Ragan and his female co-vocalist sound like they're drunk and their harmonies waver in and out of tune, which is fine if you're drunk too, but a little rough on the ears otherwise. The last third of the album is more Americana style folk rock. “Between Lines” could almost be a Johny Cash song, and “Dusty Rhodes Rule!” has some ripping harmonica licks.
Ragan calls Feast or Famine the most “mature” music he's ever created, and mature definitely seems to be the right word to describe the album. It doesn't break any new ground in any of the directions it goes, but the fact that it masters the defined sounds it sets out to emulate makes for a good listen.