On his second album, James Dunn—the Raleigh singer/songwriter CMT described as "one of America's top unsigned artists," for what that's worth—finds himself aiming for heartland rock and mostly landing. His voice is a dust-covered croon, comfortable and familiar like an old flannel shirt, and the arrangements—arena-ready electric guitars, big acoustic chords, piano, pedal steel, harmonica and accordion—back the songs with an aggressive Americana frame, more John Mellencamp than Bruce Springsteen. Dunn's not challenging any mold here, but he's filling shoes just fine.
But where Mellencamp and Springsteen capitalized on the grit beneath the blue collar, Dunn reaches toward optimism in earnest. He mixes blooming crushes and steadfast friendships with broken romances, searching for the silver linings of thorns and cracks in the pavement. Similarly, Dunn's music succeeds when he's building into charging anthems: Album opener "Find My Way" glides on a swelling guitar line and sing-along lyrics, while "Crush on You" boasts a country rock accent before exploding into a meaty guitar-crunch.
Dunn is at his most emotionally bedraggled during the title track: Over gloomy electric guitars, he sings about failed love in bittersweet terms, waxing nostalgic over the fading smell of his lover's perfume and lamenting the long road to getting over her. Even though it's the toughest moment here, with Dunn in the driver's seat, you know the sun is always shining somewhere.
James Dunn releases The Long Ride Home Saturday, March 8, at The Pour House.