C + P Constant Stranger Music (ASCAP) 2022

Reviewed by Scott Ray 

In “Rosewater,” the first track on Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster’s third solo album, No Tongue Can Tell, dreamy guitar lines, delicate piano, and impeccably harmonized vocals come together in the kind of waltz that owes as much to classic, pre-glitz country music as it does to the hymns of blood the record’s title subconsciously evokes. I say subconsciously because Kinkel-Schuster told me he wasn’t thinking of any bible verses when he named the record. I’m not sure if I can believe him.

The soothing tones of this first song are juxtaposed with violent, religious imagery—an excellent synopsis of the record and of Kinkel-Schuster’s work in general. Bloody hands, dark vestibules, dust hanging in the air, and ethereal sisters all haunt the tune before the speaker recognizes the world as another juxtaposition, a “rosewater bath full of horseshit.” After this realization, the singer is free to make his final confession: that he never believed in whatever higher power has been haunting him in the song. This duality of beauty and profound ugliness exists in all of Kinkel-Schuster’s work, as well as the struggle between the stories and traditions the characters in the songs have grown up with and the stories and traditions they feel compelled to reclaim and tell for themselves.

Ten years ago, when I first came across Kinkel-Schuster’s music, it was through the debut album Phantom Limb by his band Water Liars, a duo from Oxford, Mississippi who borrowed their name from a legendary Barry Hannah story. What struck me then was how deeply Southern the music sounded—this was difficult to describe to those who hadn’t heard the music yet. Because it was rock music, the connotations of Southern rock—bombastic, working-class regional pride—are what come to mind, but that genre is not at all what I meant. No, this was the music of not just family, but the weight of family. The music of not just the church, but about the lingering side effects that come from growing up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone. The music of not just the South, but of the land’s bloody, terrifying legacy. Also, though, it was the music of the South’s stunning resilience and beauty.

No Tongue Can Tell picks up on these themes, but over the course of the record seems to resolve the inherent contradictions in the subject matter more completely than Kinkel-Schuster has in the past. Despite the liberation of rejecting the heaviness of religion (or family, or the past) in the