Russell (center): “I don’t have any regrets on this record.” Photo by Honey Russell

No matter where your personal inclinations lie on the spectrum of ideology, you have to acknowledge that the last two and a half years have seen unprecedented division among the body politic. While we’ve seen actors, writers, and even rappers weigh in on the growing cultural rift, one artistic medium that has seemed to remain inexplicably mum on the subject is rock ’n’ roll. Sean Russell wants to change that. 

The frontman for roots-tinged indie rockers Cut Throat Finches said he’s been surprised by the disconnect between what opinions musicians will voice while sitting next to you on a barstool and what they sing about on stage. 

“You say all these things about what’s happening right now, but you don’t write about it, he said. You don’t say anything about it. It’s all just noise, you’re not really doing anything, so nothing changes.”

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Looking at Russell’s musical history, he seems an unlikely voice to take on the country’s toxic political environment. He started out as a folk-pop singer-songwriter focused on self-deprecating confessionals and standard love songs. But as the divisive political climate continued to heat up, Russell found he couldn’t ignore it anymore. 

“Most people want to feel good about music,” Russell said. “They want to have a party, and they want to have a good time. There’s a time for that, but that time is not now. I feel like we’ve had 10 or 12 years of escape, but now it’s time to do something.”

Russell’s attempt to connect Cut Throat Finches’ music and their feelings about the state of American political culture resulted in Polite Conversation, the Fort Worth five-piece’s new LP that was just released via Dallas-based Hand Drawn Records. 

Leading with the single “New Age” – its accompanying video features an amusing cameo of Lola’s Saloon owner Brian Forella in an Uncle Sam outfit – Polite Conversation is made up of 10 songs that wrap social commentary in a sugary coating of infectious British-style pop while avoiding proselytizing about any specific worldview.

The band is “not taking any particular stance,” drummer Draya Ruse added. “The theme is more [about] people listening, or rather not listening, to one another in times when we should be having real conversations.”

Tracks like “God on Our Side,” “You Don’t Write,” and “Head in the Clouds” tackle themes of war, an artist’s responsibility to take on substantive topics, and the #MeToo movement without being preachy or alienating. The tunes steer clear of who’s right and who’s wrong and instead leave it up to the listener to figure out how to feel about a given topic. As Russell sings on “The Message,” “What if the message is / ‘There is no message’?”

Conversation was recorded over the course of a year, after Russell nailed down a permanent lineup for the band. (He used a revolving cast of players for 2016’s Reality, the Finches’ first album.)

With the new record, Russell was determined to put together a group of musicians that would be able to contribute to the writing process. After Ruse moved to town from Austin, guitarist/producer Taylor Tatsch (Shadows of Jets, Maren Morris) joined the Finches’ permanent cast. The trio later added bassist Robert Paine (Cozy Hawks) and keyboardist Eric Webb to round out the lineup.

Working on the tracks two or three at a time at Tatsch’s Audio Styles Recording Studio in Dripping Springs, the band would present the basic structure of the songs to Tatsch, who would then put on his producer’s hat and work out the big-picture vision and suggest arrangements for the songs, as well as engineer and contribute his guitar parts. Russell said he couldn’t be happier with the results. 

“I’ve recorded 50-some-odd songs,” Russell said. “This is the first time that I’ve recorded and had the songs turn out better than I even imagined –– how I envisioned them or heard them in my head. I don’t have any regrets on this record.”