Joe Pug,
(Lightning Rod, 2010)

Decades ago, singer-songwriters were such a novel phenomenon that nobody had thought to invent the term. If the 1960s folk revival didn't create them out of nothing, it did bring them into the mainstream of popular music. Nobody who knows anything about the subject has to be told that the young Bob Dylan would be the most influential practitioner, after whom untold thousands followed. A couple of decades later, after he complained that now most "folk singers" were in fact singer-songwriters, the interviewer had to remind him gently who was responsible for that.

Happily, folk music -- actual folk music, in other words traditional music -- has made something of a comeback over the past decade or so. Though not a folk singer in that strict sense, Joe Pug -- a 20-something Chicago immigrant, born Joe Pugliese -- takes his inspiration from revival artists, most apparently Dylan, Phil Ochs and John Prine. The echoes of Dylan in his Village days are to be heard in Pug's acoustic guitar and rack-borne harmonica, and "The First Time I Saw You" could be a song off Prine's 1972 album Diamonds in the Rough. The anti-war "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)" has the punch of Ochs's finest work.

To my ears, though, what's missing is the explicit link that the above-named have -- in Ochs's case, had -- to the older musical traditions fashioned on guitars, harmonicas and banjos. That connection afforded all their creations a greater authority (I am unable to think of another word that will do here), giving them at least the illusion of voices carrying forth time-worn wisdom. Much of Dylan's artistic gravitas owes to his enormous and thoughtfully considered knowledge of ballads and blues, whose truths and mysteries continue to inform his writing to this day. For his part, Prine would not sound as he does if not for a lifetime's immersion in the Carter Family and in classic honkytonk singers.

Mostly, Pug's songs deal with relationships, and mostly with failed ones, and when they don't, the subject matter leans toward gloomy existential rumination. Except for the above-mentioned "Bury Me," his songwriter's world is privately and narrowly focused. Even as one takes note of Pug's manifest talent, one wishes his roots were deeper and his imagination more expansive.

Still, these manage to be pretty decent songs, some steps beyond standard singer-songwriter fare. He sings affectingly, and the arrangements, which feature him with a small country-folk band, work nicely. With this, his first album, it can be said that he's someone to hear in the present and to watch in the future.

review by
Jerome Clark

10 April 2010

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