David Olney,
When the Deal Goes Down
(Deadbeet, 2014)

If When the Deal Goes Down is any indication of the quality of David Olney's work, I can only shake my head and wonder how I managed to miss this exceptional singer-songwriter all these years. (His first solo album appeared in 1986.) If nothing else, I learn again that my complacent assumption that at any given moment I know, or at least know of, all worthwhile roots-based music is nothing short of delusional. I have been aware of Olney -- his name was certainly not unfamiliar to me -- but till now I had heard few of his songs.

Let's put it this way: From the evidence of Deal, as a songwriter Olney, who lives in Nashville, can be spoken of in the same breath as the revered British master Richard Thompson, though he is certainly no Thompson clone. Like Thompson, however, Olney boldly takes on the Big Subjects -- God, death, the fate of the soul, the supernatural, the experience of war -- and has the mature artist's ability to avoid missteps (with possibly one exception, noted below) and to say things that will stick in your head and possibly even make you wiser. The musical language in which these stories and reflections are expressed is folk and folk-rock, with the occasional detour into classic jazz-pop.

It's amazing, or frustrating, how many singer-songwriters seem constitutionally (or intellectually) unable to write anything but relationship songs. Olney has a few of those, too -- "Why So Blue?" is in the style of a jazzy 1920s pop tune of the kind revived latterly by Leon Redbone -- but their manifest smartness and sophistication place them in a category of their own, taking worn themes and applying a new shine to them. He does the same with the vaguely countryish "Sad Saturday Night."

The really striking stuff, though, is the likes of "Scarecrow Man," a genuinely scary narrative inspired by the likes of the more gothic Child ballads ("The Wife of Usher's Well" comes to mind) and "Soldier of Misfortune," which Olney reports he wrote just as the Vietnam War was winding down. Yet it speaks movingly to the universal experience of senseless conflict and its unfathomable human toll.

Like Guy Clark's, Olney's voice is wry, worn and intimately conversational. Still, he's stretching it a bit on "Roll This Stone," which (I take it) is intended to satirize the early Rolling Stones. It's certainly not a bad song, but it's just as surely the least necessary; who even thinks about the Stones anymore? Apparently not even the Stones, judging from the quality of their output in recent decades. Maybe their business manager still cares. The rest of us have no such obligation.

Oh well. Here's what's important: When the Deal Goes Down (along with Jeff Black's Folklore, which I reviewed in this space on 14 June 2014) sets the bar for this year in rooted songwriting. Be warned, all would-be competitors: it's a dauntingly high one.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 July 2014

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