It’s only June but I can confidently say that 2012 has been a fantastic year for country music releases, especially from Victorians. Lachlan Bryan’s January release, Shadow of the Gun, with its robust, masculine sound and intriguing stories, indicated that something interesting was going on in the deep south. It seemed unlikely that he’d have a challenger for that particular throne, but then I heard The Ember and the Afterglow. Now it seems that Jed Rowe and Lachlan Bryan may have to reign side by side.

The Ember and the Afterglow starts with an auditory surprise – a deep male voice singing the song of a desperate woman, in ‘Castlemaine’. It seems so unusual, but as we go deeper into the album it becomes clear that Rowe has four female narrators out of eleven songs, and that their stories are diverse and fascinating and compelling. Rowe is an incredible storyteller – each song is a self-contained world with a narrator who seems to be sitting next to the listener, looking into their eyes and holding their hand. They’re not all sympathetic characters, but they’re sympathetic narrators. From a lyric point of view, this album seems more like a collection of carefully, lovingly shaped and curated short stories.

If Rowe had achieved only that – to create such an extraordinary song cycle – he’d have my attention, but it’s the music, carefully shepherded by producer Jeff Lang, that really delivers those stories and draws us in first, before we realise what the lyrics are saying. Taking in country, blues, folk, rock and other influences, these songs are musical delights. Rowe has a strong, commanding baritone, and he understands what many singers do not: he respects the song and doesn’t try to get in its way.  If the narrators of the songs sit down next to us, Rowe’s voice is what has led them to us in the first place. His voice is backed by his own acoustic and lap steel playing, as well as by double bass from Michael Arvanitakis and drums by Michael DiCecco. They’re a tight outfit and they, too, understand what’s needed to make sure those songs do what they’re meant to do.

I’d never heard of Jed Rowe before this album was sent to me. I’m so very pleased that I had the chance to found out who he is and what he can do. The Ember and the Afterglow is now one of my favourite albums of all time, and I thank him for making it.

The Jed Rowe Band is touring: details at 

The Ember and the Afterglow will be released on 6 July 2012 (independent, through Fuse Group Distribution).