Seeing Josh T. Pearson clean-shaven and short shorn on the bright pink cover of his new album The Straight Hits! is sure to be quite a shock for long-term fans. It's surprising not just because his bushy bearded cowboy look seemed so natural it was unchangeable, but also that he's got around to releasing new music at all. It’s been 7 years since the release of his first solo album Last Of The Country Gentlemen, which came a full 10 years after the release of Lift To Experience’s one and only album, the classic The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. So what is it that has inspired Pearson back into the spotlight with such a flamboyant new look? On the surface it seems simply that it’s the idea to put together 10 songs all with the word “straight” in the title. Digging into the songs on the album, it turns out it’s something even simpler than that: good old love.

If the mournful folk of Last Of The Country Gentlemen suggested that all the bombast of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads had been drained from Pearson, then The Straight Hits’ barrelling opening track ‘Straight To The Top!’ is here to set the record, ahem, straight. Not only does it sonically thrill with its propulsive and snowballing guitars, but the downright humour and excitement in his vocal delivery totally blows away the sometimes stifling seriousness of his previous outing. In fact, the closest he comes to his previous country-folk guise is not even his song; ‘Damn Straight’ is perfectly attuned to Pearson’s whisky-soaked brand of misery, but was actually penned by Jonathan Terrell. Alongside ‘Damn Straight’, only the rambling and ironic ‘Whiskey Straight Love’ would have comfortably sat on that album. The other occasions when he approaches the acoustic-and-voice stylings of his previous guise are markedly different from what he did before. ‘The Dire Straits Of Love’ is true to its title with a sad-sack story of lost romance, but with a finger snapping doo-wop backed spoken word section, it shows Pearson in a more comical and adventurous light. ‘Straight Laced Come Undone’ is so joyfully lustful it seems like he’s turned inside out from the washed up personality of Country Gentleman. Even the relatively miserable album closer ‘Straight Down Again’ distinguishes itself differently through its use of stumbling piano and Pearson again letting some rays of humour eke their way into the gloom.

However, the most enjoyable parts of The Straight Hits! are those furthest from his prior persona. The epic centrepiece ‘Loved Straight To Hell’ is well within his comfort zone, but still a thrill for old fans; a dusty shoegazey desert rocker that immediately recalls some of the more blustery moments of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. ‘Give It To Me Straight’ has enough bent chords and excited yelps to elevate it well above a humdrum bar-room rocker that it takes its bearing from. ‘Straight At Me’ is the most unabashedly happy thing Pearson has ever done, replete with sprightly keys, whistling, lyrics about being shot by cupid’s bow and a simplistic and catchy chorus. With its breathy vocals and processed drumbeat, ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’ is like an old country singer taking a turn at maximalist 80s pop – and it works to devastating effect, becoming the highlight of the album. The delicate keys of ‘A Love Song’ guide it through the confessional verses, before allowing Pearson to open up a tender falsetto in its grandstanding chorus. Pearson’s resounding rock tendencies are worked into the track progressively, and by its crescendo it boasts layers of hazy guitars, strings, vocal harmonies, and a cathartic cornet solo.

The main take away from The Straight Hits! is that Josh T. Pearson has a lot more facets to his music than he may have previously let on. In its fairly diverse array, it offers half a dozen different directions that he could move on his next album – or he could make another pick’n’mix collection like he has here. Whatever he decides to do on his next album, The Straight Hits! has more than enough to make us very much hope it won’t be another 7 year wait.