Vienna, Austria is an unlikely place, perhaps, for an American roots musician to ply their trade. Marc Miner, however, never got that memo. We’re better off that he didn’t. His 2020 release Smile When You’re Wasted introduced his distinctive brand of storytelling filtered through a blues and/or classic country music idiom and its successor, Last Heroes, further refines and expands on its artistry. The eleven-song collection is equal parts a journey through Miner’s heart and a voyage through a distinctly American vision of hell. Miner’s songwriting never compromises personal truth in favor of a lovely lie and the songs are far more than perfunctory vehicles for Miner’s lyrical skill.
They overflow with musical skill and imagination. It’s the little touches making up the latter. You hear it in the tolling bell opening the first song “Sweet Revenge” and the slight echo enhancing Miner’s voice. It’s present as well in the guitar work, uniquely vocal, and snake-like with its reverb coiling and stretching out throughout the track. The lines of the lyrics are sinewy and don’t waste a word. It’s ideal for a story about homicidal retribution and the icing on this bitter lyrical cake is the relaxed, almost off-handed, way Miner delivers the lyrics.
He digs in belting out the words for “Girl Gone Bad”. It’s coming from a completely different place than the opener, definitely a below-the-belt song and the lusty heart of the tune has a great interpreter in Miner. The bluesy salvos of guitar firing throughout the number are an excellent match for his voice and lyrics alike.
Ghostly pedal steel echoes counterpoint Miner’s singing throughout the track “Last Hero’s Gone”. Miner excels with these musical short stories about hard-luck men facing desperate or dangerous ends and, more often than not, paying dearly for the lives they’ve led. The tempo is equally desperate with this one, a great fit, and Miner’s laconic vocal syncs up well with the piece’s fatalistic mood.
“Heavy Bones” begins with clipped, rhythmic acoustic guitar riffs before taking off in a full-bore country rock slammer shortly thereafter. It’s highlighted by a wide-eyed and impassioned vocal performance, as well, that elevates already exceptional lyrics. It’s little wonder that Miner picked this as one of the album’s flagship tracks. He lightens the album’s mood some with the track “Home Ain’t No Place for Me”, drawing on Austrian folk story traditions, and flirting with comedic elements in a low-key way. It doesn’t seem out of place, however, particularly musically.
The album’s final curtain comes with “Cheer Me Up ‘Cause I’m Leaving”. No one will convince listeners that this wasn’t one of the key tracks for the album in Miner’s mind because it seems deliberately tailored to serve as the collection’s closer. The final line is note perfect. Miner throws himself into this one with an acute sense of its importance in the album’s running order. The overall construction of Last Heroes is one of its strong suits and reinforces its standing as one of the year’s best albums, regardless of genre.