When Red Collar released its full-length debut, 2009's Pilgrim, the Durham favorites seemed like a safe bet for an emerging national profile. That album's title track—a story of an unbeatable racehorse longing for more than running in circles—seemed to be an apt parable as the band's members left jobs to hit the road hard. They wanted the world to hear.
But as Red Collar seemed to be fulfilling some wagers on their success, a string of accidents and incidents stalled the band: Tours became less frequent. Word on new material was slim. The band didn't break up, but few would've blamed them if they had amid injuries, growing families and the increasing demands of day jobs. But frontman Jason Kutchma kept the flame burning. He started touring solo, playing his band's songs alone to keep them in front of out-of-town audiences—kind of a consolation prize, really, that led to the stronger Welcome Home.
Red Collar always had sturdy songwriting at its core, but any weaknesses could be easily covered by the band's bombastic presentation. Welcome Home needs no such crutch. Though some of the album's songs made their live debuts as early as 2010, Kutchma's singer-songwriter stint seems to have swayed the full band's material toward concision. Fewer gang-vocal choruses give the impression that this is more of a songwriter's album, whereas Pilgrim was a more egalitarian effort. Without losing any sharp twin-guitar melodies or dampening a powerful rhythm section, Welcome Home is the byproduct of leaner and more focused songwriting.
The sound is also more dynamic here, with Red Collar trading in the generalized rock churn for more development and nuance. "This House" begins as the album's most spare track but slowly builds into the type of larger-than-life swell that Red Collar has used to fill rooms since 2006. As an exercise in restrained tension and overwhelming release, it's a much more confident and effective arrangement than something like Pilgrim's "Tonight." With the band firing on all cylinders, live staples "Orphanage," "American Me" and "Welcome Home" lose no impact, even as the studio adds a welcome dose of sonic clarity.
Red Collar's situation has changed drastically in the last several years. The impulse to bet on their success has not.