Hank Topless: It's So December (Self-released)

Trading in wry wordplay and hard-won wisdom, singer-songwriter Hank Topless uses his warm baritone voice to weave lovely songs of nostalgia, darkness and occasional joy. The nine classic honky-tonk tracks on this new album explore a combination of humor and emotional tumult.

These tunes could survive in a solo-acoustic format, and live performances are a showcase for Topless' agile six-string playing. But he seasons many of the tunes here with subtle flavors of electric piano and organ, harmonica, moody fiddle, mandolin and booming electric-guitar leads. Occasionally, he enlivens the arrangements with shards of guitar noise, providing moments of edgy atmosphere.

And he's a hell of a songwriter. "Waitress" is a disarmingly beautiful portrait of a decent person caught in the quiet desperation of her situation, and "Cry 'Em All" professes to a lifetime of tears while self-consciously reflecting on the nature of crying. "Happy Time Blues" reflects on the joy of overcast days, writing sad songs and the fantasy of associating with heroes such as George Jones, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings.

"Like It Don't Matter" opens with a paraphrase from the classic tune "Tennessee Waltz" ("I was dancing with my cocaine ...") and descends into a lurid account of addiction and hitting rock bottom. His lyrics may be wrenching, but Topless' charming delivery and the fascinating arrangement make the song a miniature piece of art.

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