“They said, ‘We’re sorry son, you think too much: we don’t know what you mean and the tempo’s too slow…” (“True Love Never Let Me Down,” Jeff Black)
Here is what I love about troubadours, especially ones as astute and honed as Jeff Black: I may not always comprehend what they are singing about, but I always understand what they are singing about.
Like no one else so much as Darrell Scott, Jeff Black is that not uncommon breed of singer-songwriter who builds a career upon intelligence and perseverance rather than on the lure of glamour and notoriety. His songs have been infrequently recorded by others, most often by Sam Bush. Black’s “Same Ol’ River” has been a staple of Bush’s live set and is quite possibly the song with which most readers will be familiar, and Black co-wrote with Bush the title track to 2009’s Circles Around Me.
Black’s songwriting catalogue is extensive, but his list of cuts is less expansive. Jerry Douglas recorded one of his co-writes on last year’s Traveler, and Blackhawk took his “That’s Just About Right” to the country top ten twenty years ago.
This is the ninth album from the long-time Nashville (and Kansas City born) resident and serves as a follow-up to the release that originally brought Black to my attention, 2003’s B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One. Since that time, Black has inspired me to research an allusion or mysterious lyric on more than one occasion. I have purchased his early albums via the second hand and digital marketplaces (his debut Birmingham Road came out on Arista in ’98 and was recorded with most of Wilco) and his albums Tin Lily and Mining for Gold have long been favourites.
Black is a stronger, more confidently expressive vocalist today than when I first encountered him, and he was plenty impressive then. He inhabits his songs without reserve, giving Dave Alvinesque weariness to “All Right Now,” and clouded youthful wonder to “Impala.” Black is a paladin, accompanying (and sometimes championing) others on their poetic, musical journeys.
Black sketches characters with acute clarity, laying detail laden phrases upon softly hewn foundations. “Alice Carry” is given depth and strength through Black’s use of judicious lyrical phrases: rather than hitting Hollywood, she finds herself discovering love and a life- “some of us are lucky and some of us just make due”- and it is clear which perspective the protagonist leans toward.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to care about the character within “An Evil Lesson Is Soon Learned” or hold more than head-shaking respect for the ill-advised, hapless hero of “Molly Rose,” but Black’s execution of his songs is all-encompassing. There are no half-measures here, each note played and every word sung with the same intensity found within Tom Waits’ finest work.
Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg drop in to sing on “Avalon,” while Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas play most of that which Black doesn’t; the musicianship is unsurprisingly top-notch.
Jeff Black doesn’t appear to write with ‘a hook’ in mind; like the finest of writers, he allows the listener to identify that which will grab them…even if we don’t always grasp every nuance of what is being sung.
“I’m so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused, I don’t know of any reasons;
I just know the gasoline on it just made it worse, when water was all I needed truth be known.” (“Miss Me,” Jeff Black)
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Here is my review of B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One from a decade ago:
Featuring a Beatlesque opening that quickly moves into Chip Taylor territory, Jeff Black is an artist for those who are more musically comfortable with the ditches than the middle of the road. As a vocalist, Black is a terrific songwriter. His gravelly voice, which hints at John Hiatt and John Rebennack, has an appealing bleeding intensity. Adding jazzed blues nuances, piano accents many compositions where others might strum. The effect is a version of country music that is so far removed from the expected parameters as to contribute to that unnameable roots genre populated by Eric Taylor, Darrell Scott, and the late Mickey Newbury. Well worth considering.