Brunette on brunette
Jackie Greene’s new album, Sweet Somewhere Bound, is a qualified knockout
From the kickoff of “About Cell Block #9,” the first track on Jackie Greene’s album Sweet Somewhere Bound, released last Tuesday by local independent label Dig Music, it becomes readily apparent what Greene and producer David Houston used as their benchmark. Blonde on Blonde, the 1966 double album by Bob Dylan, combined a similar mixture of folk, country, blues and rock into something altogether new.
That, of course, was 38 years ago, and yesterday’s electrifying breakthrough is today’s musical comfort food. On Greene’s new disc, his third, all the elements are present—strummed, flat-picked or finger-picked acoustic guitars driving or caressing the songs, underpinned by typically tasteful backing from well-seasoned sidemen. Occasionally, there are signature filigrees: wheezing harmonica parts that sound like they just fell off a freight train next to Tom Joad’s dusty bindle; swirling organ swells that evoke Garth Hudson’s work with Dylan and, later, the Band; and an electric guitar, its effect blunted by atmospheric tremolo.
The net effect is that everything here sounds oddly familiar; the only things missing are the cracks and pops of your favorite old dog-eared LP. Still, the music manages to ring fresh and relatively un-embalmed, which is an achievement—as quite a few so-called Americana records sound stuffy and lifeless. This one, fortunately, doesn’t.
Credit that to Greene, who really is a charismatic songwriter and performer. Greene inhabits his songs confidently. And his vocals—a lazy drawl with a little bit of tobacco smoke around the edges—suit his material just fine. He tends to sing a little behind the beat, similar to the way he plays the harmonica, which gives even his most upbeat stuff a laid-back feel.
Though such Dylanesque songs as the first single, “Honey I Been Thinking About You,” or the bluesy “Seven Jealous Sisters,” are quite marvelous—credit Houston for the spacious sound, and such sidemen as bassist Erik Kleven and drummer Steve Price for assistance, although most of the parts were played by Greene—the album’s best song may be its simplest. On “Sweet Somewhere Bound,” a stark, finger-picked country-blues number in the style of Mississippi John Hurt, Greene’s vocal sounds unaffected and honest.
If there’s real fault to be picked here, it’s with Greene’s lyrics. In some songs, minor details don’t add up to a coherent whole. Take “About Cell Block #9,” a song wherein Greene catches his wife and his best friend in flagrante delicto, so he grabs a handy shotgun and sends his former best buddy to his reward. A verse later, he’s singing, “Gonna find me on a chain, digging ditches in the rain / And I’ll be wearing them county clothes.” Ahem, murder is a state-prison offense; said convicts rarely, if ever, can be found whacking weeds next to the highway.
More generally, Greene’s lyrics don’t sound like original observations as much as images pulled from the great American folk-music songbook, or points of view familiar to anyone who’s listened to a lot of records from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk explosion. The words of Dylan, in his day, rang like a prophet, even when he was singing about his personal life. Greene, even though he sings with deep conviction, sometimes sounds as if he hasn’t yet lived the things he writes about.
To his credit, though, Greene isn’t self-consciously literary in the way that made the music of some of Dylan’s contemporaries rough-going. And occasionally, Greene gets off a really elegant couplet, like “The coffee likes to chase the booze / The booze it likes to chase the blues” from “A Thing Called Rain.”
Weaknesses aside, and they are minor, Greene looks like he’s headed for the big time quite soon. If this album was released by, say, Columbia, or even Capitol Records’ Blue Note division, we’d be seeing him on Letterman or Leno in a heartbeat. He’s already better than most of the new Dylans who get booked on those shows. And if Sweet Somewhere Bound, despite its faults, is any indication, Greene’s artistic growth is just beginning, and fame inevitably will follow.