Joe Pug,
The Great Despiser
(Lightning Rod, 2012)

For a couple of years now, a good friend of mine has been trying to get me to listen to Joe Pug, who she says is the next Steve Earle. You know how it is when someone oversells an artist or a piece of art; I can't count all the CDs and books I've bought on other people's recommendations that turned out to be trash.

So, when Joe Pug's new CD, The Great Despiser, showed up in the mail, I have to admit to a touch of apprehension. What did I know about Pug? I knew he was another singer-songwriter who dropped out of college to make music full-time, moving to Chicago and trying to get a career started. I knew he'd taken a singular route by turning his early fans into his promo team by sending out free CDs to anyone who requested one or more, as long as they shared the music with their friends. And I knew he'd worked his way up from Chicago's bars to the bigger clubs and festivals, appearing at Bonnaroo, Lollapapooza and the Newport Folk Festival. My friend first encountered him when Pug was touring with Steve Earle.

So, what happened when I put the CD on? I discovered all of my apprehension was for nothing. Pug is good almost good enough to live up to Erin's hype. The only down point on the CD for me is "One of Many," a fine song that suffers from being remarkably similar to a Steve Earle song -- so similar in fact that it harkens back to Dylan's old tendency of sticking new lyrics to familiar tunes, so that the Clancy Brothers' "Patriot Game" became "With God on Their Side." You hear faint echoes in many of Pug's tunes, but in "One of Many" you hear another song.

Still, Pug sings well and writes beautifully, slinging metaphors like hash in a diner. Take a look at the lyrics to the opening song, "Hymn 76."

To meet me is to stare into the darkness
but if you are devoted to a dream
go and light the lantern
leave your family abandoned
meet me by the shallows of the stream
meet me by the shallows of the stream

You can hear the influence not of other singers but of great poets from W.H. Auden to William Butler Yeats in there. This guy can write, and he has the power to bring his writing to life in a tune and sing the hell out of it.

Thanks for the introduction, Erin.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

16 June 2012

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