Business 80, revisited
Verve Forecast is a pop-music imprint of Verve, the jazz and adult music division of Universal, the world’s largest major-label group. A record label is a commercial articulation of an aesthetic viewpoint, and Verve Forecast seems focused largely on singer-songwriters with a distinct 1960s sensibility. The label signed Jackie Greene last year and re-released his third Dig Music album, Sweet Somewhere Bound.
Greene’s fourth album, American Myth, comes out on Tuesday, March 14. It follows two other albums by Teddy Thompson and Rhett Miller, both released in February. Of Verve Forecast’s three newest acts, Greene is the least known. Thompson’s parents are British folk-rock icons Richard and Linda Thompson, and young Thompson has toured with his dad. Miller is the singer and frontman for the Old 97’s, a well-regarded Dallas-based alt-country band.
Thompson’s label debut, Separate Ways, his second album, benefits from some real star power: His dad, Richard, one of the planet’s finest guitarists, plays on two tracks. Elsewhere he’s assisted by his mom, Linda, along with three fellow progeny of 1970s folk-star marriages—siblings Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and Jenni Muldaur. Like his dad, Thompson can be a haunting singer, and here he explores a variety of feels and settings, most of them within the mellow parameters of, say, a James Taylor album.
By contrast, Miller’s album The Believer, his third, is pretty much a rock record. It’s produced by George Drakoulias (Black Crowes and Tift Merritt), whose nuance-free tendency toward sonic overkill perhaps isn’t the best choice for this collection of rockers, folk-pop tunes and electrified Americana waltzes. Miller writes memorable hooks, though, and if you dug those first few Wilco records, this may be right up your alley.
That leaves Jackie Greene. Of these three albums, American Myth is the most varied. Choosing Steve Berlin—saxophonist for Los Lobos—to produce the record was somebody’s really good idea. Though it’s arguable that no one should ever write another song called “Hollywood,” Berlin casts Greene’s opening track as a slithering, Ry Cooder-style R&B number. “Cold Black Devil/14 Miles” provides another bluesified band workout. At the other end of the spectrum are several folk-tinged numbers—“Just as Well,” “Love Song 2 a.m.” and the nicely Beatlesque “I’ll Let You In.” Best is “Never Satisfied (Revisited),” a loping, sweetly picked number that rolls by like countryside seen from a Greyhound window.
The music is quite good, even if it’s so strongly rooted in a 1965 Bob Dylan aesthetic. But singer-songwriters tend to be judged on their words, and Greene hasn’t made that leap—yet—to stand alongside a Dylan, or even a Townes Van Zandt. The album’s penultimate track, a soaring, near-10-minute epic named “Supersede,” works as the album’s “Desolation Row,” but it doesn’t quite gel. And rhyming “Vegas” with “plague us,” as Greene does on “I’m So Gone,” might rattle a pedant or two.
American Myth may not establish Jackie Greene as a global giant, but it should advance his career nicely. Using a Dylan yardstick, it’s somewhere between his Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited—which is nice, but I’m waiting for Greene’s Blonde on Blonde.