Philip Gibbs,
The Petroleum Age
(independent, 2011)

Philip Gibbs is an Austin-based singer-songwriter -- not, all things considered, a particularly novel occupation. The Petroleum Age, his fourth CD, introduces me to him. He turns out to be a fashioner of materials set in folk, downhome-blues and rockabilly arrangements, with a small band backing his strummed acoustic guitar. The music isn't novel, either -- then again, hardly anything in popular music is; there are, after all, only so many notes and so many musical approaches and arrangements -- but it is ably accomplished. And as unpretentious music often does, it seems to get better each time you hear it.

Appealingly to me, Gibbs appears to know something of real -- that is, traditional -- folk music. He sounds a bit like Woody Guthrie filtered through the influence of Guy Clark, with the late Townes Van Zandt virtually the inventor of modern Texas folk. But the title tune, which opens the CD (it's co-written with Conor Hopkins), relies on the sort of threadbare default melody Tom T. Hall employed in many of his early songs, when his focus was on the telling of the story, not on the crafting of a hummable tune. The song, which I like well enough, represents an apparently emerging genre of topical protest (I've heard two others in the past month), a scathing critique of our insatiable dependence on fossil fuels -- a judgment many of Gibbs's fellow Texans do not want to hear; give the man credit for guts -- even as the earth's atmosphere spirals ever more alarmingly into higher temperatures and catastrophic instability.

Two nicely crafted Texas-history ballads -- "Stephen F. Austin's Blues" and "Sam Houston's Blues" -- follow. "Gallows' Orphan," which briefly quotes the antique ballad "Gallows Pole" (usually associated with Lead Belly but predating him by centuries), tells the tale of a doomed murderer in first-person narrative. Once upon a time, when hangings were literally popular entertainment, these were given the grimly humorous appellation "good-night ballads."

Other songs express more conventionally personal sentiments, usually of romantic anxiety, regret or disappointment. Gibbs has a firm command of lyric and melody, and so the songs feel true and grown-up. On the other hand, I still haven't figured out exactly what "Silver Dust," which gives the vague impression of being set in the Old West, is about. It sure is pretty, though.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 July 2011

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