A.J. Roach,
(Waterbug, 2007)

Not long ago, in an essay about house-cleaning, writer and radio performer Garrison Keillor took stock of what he'd removed of late from life and living space. Prominent among the disposed-of items were, he noted with what appeared to be spiteful glee, "CDs by promising singer-songwriters." I thought of the acerbic observation of British musician and Folk Roots editor Ian Anderson: he dreaded the day, sure to arrive, when at birth every American child will be declared a singer-songwriter.

I confess that -- though of course some practitioners are indeed worthy and I do respect them -- I am anything but a flag-waving partisan of the genre. Not everybody who can sing and play an instrument, after all, can, or should, compose a song. Or anyway, that ought to be self-evident to any sentient observer. Since apparently it is less obvious than one might presume or hope, however, the parade of singer-songwriters -- promising and otherwise -- marches past our eyes and ears, the end neither visible nor audible.

As long as I'm on the subject, let me append one more complaint. A particular gloom descends upon me when I hear acoustic-guitar slinging singer-songwriters routinely described as folk singers, which they usually aren't, while folk singers (who perform traditional or at least tradition-informed music) are called country artists, which they aren't. Let's make this simple. Folk = traditional, or at least something that acknowledges a homegrown musical tradition predating the recording industry. Country = honkytonk. Folk songs almost all take place outdoors (mountains, plains, bodies of water, streets), country songs indoors (barrooms, bedrooms, churches). Most singer-songwriters are acoustic-pop artists. Acoustic pop is a perfectly valid genre, but it ought never to be confused with the above-defined. And yeah, most singer-songwriters aren't very good. It's not just that as Sturgeon's Law insists, 95 percent of everything is crap; it's also that singer-songwriters grate in particular because so many of them, sometimes even the technically proficient, come across as narcissistic twits.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that, all of the above being true, it's easy to miss the good ones. A.J. Roach is a good one, as -- unheard -- you may infer from the sole fact of his being on Andrew Calhoun's Waterbug label, which is an outlet for a whole bunch of gifted folk and folk-referencing acts who merit the attention of discerning listeners. Besides that, Tom T. Hall says, "A.J. Roach is a true poet," and if anybody knows songwriting poets, Tom T. Hall, he of overwhelming and irrefutable authority, surely does.

I'd heard Revelation a few times (it's his second disc; I haven't heard the first, titled Dogwood Winter), knowing only that Roach is fairly young and lives in San Francisco. Though his songs are hardly imitation traditional ballads, at some point it struck me that the most moving of them have a comparably Gothic, otherworldly aura. As harrowing as it is gorgeous, "Streets of Omaha" is the sort of piece that John Prine might have written for one of his very early, still-classic, Appalachian-sound-soaked albums. When I got around to reading the promotional material, I learned that Roach grew up in the mountains of Virginia, raised on ballads and hymns, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers.

What Roach does with compositions like the title song, "Freezing Car" and "Sears & Roebuck Suit" is to take the shadowy spirit of the antique music and set it to haunting the world the rest of us live in, far removed from that time and place to which the old-time ballads and spirituals spoke as native language. Roach, whose vocal gifts are impressive, sings in a kind of tormented tenor, both beautiful and scary, in front of guitars, fiddle, accordion and mandolin but also trombone, organ, drums and even (on a couple of occasions) glockenspiel. Not much, if any, daylight shines on these tracks; barely a star breaks through the darkness, and the wind blows cold.

Still, because he isn't yet a veteran and this is only record No. 2, I guess we'll have to acknowledge that A.J. Roach is, um, a promising singer-songwriter. I think we can also call him a folk singer, if an idiosyncratic one. More to the point, though, we can welcome him, embrace this exceptionally attractive and memorable album and follow the trail from here.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 April 2008

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