Album Review: Josh Oliver, Troubles
You know Josh Oliver. He’s the quiet (sometimes bearded, sometimes not) dashingly handsome gent who has been traipsing back and forth across this great land for the last handful of years, acting as sideman, playing lead guitar and keys in the Johnson City/Knoxville, TN, darlings, the everybodyfields. Since the split of Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews, the everybodyfields’ founding father and mother, Oliver has been, not unlike a child of divorced parents, dutifully dividing his time between both “dad” and “mom,” lending each the support of his vocals and lead instrumentation as they pursue their respective solo careers.
But 2011 marked a shift for the seemingly-shy Oliver, the impetus of which is unknown. At long last, he has decided to step out of the shadows and into the light, trying his hand as frontman. Though it is unclear as to whether this will mark a shift in his touring patterns (meaning whether he will begin booking fewer dates supporting Sam or Jill in favor of pursuing his own solo career) at least he has decided to reward his adoring listeners with a work of his own, entitled simply, Troubles.
By the way he carries himself, it is doubtful as to whether Oliver realizes that, despite his status as “just” a sideman, he does have a hardcore group of devoted fans, which is why it is particularly exciting that he has, unwittingly or not, indulged us with a work all his own.
Once I became aware of Oliver’s plans to record a solo project, I was immediately curious to hear what he would choose in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. Would he opt to pursue a full sound, similar to those found on the last handful of albums he recorded on? (*See footnote for info.) Or, would he go a simpler route, paring things down to their sparser, skeletal elements?
It turns out that Josh has chosen an uncluttered approach, using backup very sparingly, which creates dramatic emphasis when those additions do slip into and out of the songs. And, paradoxically, my overall impression of this album is that Oliver has created a piece of work fraught with a sense of distant intimacy in Troubles.
The striking…far away feeling he conjures persists even if I listen at a relatively high volume. Obviously this effect is, in part, a result of the production in the studio; the distance between his mouth and the mic, the slight reverb added to his vocals, the volume of his vocals in relation to the rest of the sounds in the mix, and the amount of room mic used in the mix, since room mics convey a sense of openness. But this distance between us, as listeners, and Oliver, as storyteller, extends beyond simple studio logistics.
Production aside, this effect is also due to Oliver’s reserved nature, as exemplified in his lyrical content and performance style.
Ambiguous Lyrical Content
What characterizes Oliver’s original work is a sense of passion and pain he communicates despite ambiguity as to their cause. His use of nonspecific lyrics and his refusal to name the events that cause the sorrow that underscores the album make it seem as though he approaches songs as if they were abstract paintings. This choice of vague lyrics is akin to an artist selecting large brushes for wide strokes, which, while making it difficult to discern the painting’s subject, still allows the artist to convey broad themes. Oliver’s lack of elaboration allows overtones to dominate over details, leaving events or individuals alluded to rather than identified, while an overall mood is created, nonetheless. Even from a distance, you intuit the implicit: that it is a painting (or a song) of something sad.
There is definitely a sense of beating around the bush involved when Oliver performs a song. And, as listeners who are familiar with him as an artist and his particular style of communication, we know what he is doing to us. He brings us in, closer and closer to the painful epicenter from which these songs emanate, alluding to some sad event but never naming it, and we continue to follow…despite the inevitable lack of satisfaction in learning what, exactly, is the matter. He keeps us in a perpetual state of wanting, while constantly delaying delivery, all while imparting that mood of sadness to us as listeners, whether or not we knowingly nor willingly accept it. It’s brilliant, really. Well done, sir. That is what the masters do.
Indirect Performance Style
Mr. Oliver is both figuratively and literally indirect in his music: figuratively in his choice of abstract language, and literally in his delivery of that language. The delivery of which I speak is that charming way his voice meanders to and from a note, rather than choosing the shortest route between notes A and B. In that way, Oliver’s performance style mirrors his narrative style, which reinforces the feeling that Oliver is in control of our journey through each of the album’s songs, as he guides us along the musical equivalent of the scenic route. This is another stroke of genius on Oliver’s part, because, whether intentional or not, these distancing behaviors ironically create an intimacy between himself and the listener.
Attempts at Creating Distance Ironically Create Intimacy
These indirect qualities are precisely what make Oliver’s music absolutely riveting. First, because Oliver does not insult our intelligence as listeners by being too literal in his songwriting, he leaves his songs’ meanings up to our interpretation, forcing us to create a narrative from the clues he gives us. Thus, whether we intend to be or not, we are engaged, not only in the task of listening, but also in the act of putting together a puzzle.
Josh Oliver’s music is gripping also because the listener has no idea what note he’s going to sing next. That’s not just a function of writing or choosing songs with interesting chord progressions, though that helps. As a performer, he is just unpredictable. This factor also forces us to become active listeners, which makes us a rapt audience and increases the feeling of intimacy on the part of us as listeners.
Ultimately, Oliver’s ambiguity and his take-the-long-way approach to music remain unsuccessful at the task they seem, at least on the surface, designed to perform, which is keeping his listeners from getting too close. It’s as though Oliver remains determined to keep his guard up, maintaining a safe distance between himself and his audience, even in the midst of the vulnerable act of performing. However, no amount of subtle indirectness can mask the passion and the pain that come shooting, like a beacon, from Oliver’s mouth each time he sings. In fact, though it pains me to know that this command of Oliver’s was born of personal experience and, well, troubles, it is admittedly one of his most endearing qualities as a performer: that there is a sense of woundedness which lies shallow beneath the surface, painful and real enough to warrant all of these measures on Oliver’s part to keep us from figuring out what it is that is hurting him. And instead, it inches us closer and closer to the speakers from which his voice warbles, sending springs of compassion welling from our hearts.
Passion and Pain
So, as you have likely surmised, this faraway feel which I’ve described does not dilute the emotions evoked by the album, because they provide such a brilliant contrast to the passion and pain that define his vocal performances. The result is an intimacy between Oliver and his listeners that anchors him securely in our hearts, allowing us to experience these emotions with him, which echo and reverberate inside of us with the same haunting quality as a train blowing its whistle into the distant night. And, like the sound of a freight train, Oliver’s sound inspires that same kind of loneliness and yearning.
Given that lengthy introduction, Troubles, released June 21st, 2011, conjures images of traveling across vast expanses of country, perhaps with a heart heavy from abandonment or the gloom of some other grief. It is the rumble of a train pushing itself relentlessly over miles of track, to a destination unknown in the mysterious west. It is the feeling you get when traveling through deserted towns, decorated with decrepit homes letting broken shutters flap and slap loudly against chipping paint on warping wood. It is the tightening of your shoulders as you walk the streets of an unfamiliar city at night, grit grinding into the concrete sidewalk beneath your feet, the slight scent of urine and rotting restaurant food wafting from the dumpstered alleyways. It is the way you avoid a stranger’s eye contact as he rubs his whiskered chin, cigarette clutched between knobby knuckles, asking you, brother, if you could spare any change while he rattles his chipped styrofoam cup. It is the realization that your lover is no longer in bed with you, and that you won’t see him again, while you struggle in vain to shield your hungover eyes from the harsh sun’s rays angling in through the slats of the blinds.
In the future, what I would like from Oliver is another album, this time of all originals, each treated with more instrumentation to create a fuller arrangement. I would also like him to seek out more female vocal support. That is not to say that I didn’t care for the rare harmonious additions of Megan Gregory or the sounds of Sam Quinn. But I do think that Oliver’s and Quinn’s voices sound similar enough that it dilutes the impact in their harmonies a bit. I would rather Josh stick to what he does best, which is take my breath away when he sings with a powerful female vocalist.
Moving forward, Josh is in a really unique and enviable position. Not only is he one of the nation’s most promising rising stars in his genre, he has had the benefit of of working extensively with two of the most skilled songwriters in Americana music today, Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews. Whether or not he realizes it, he has had two of the very best as his mentors, with whom he has traveled, recorded, and performed. The combination of his raw talent, his humble charm, the experience that he’s gleaned by working with Quinn and Andrews, and the support they would surely lend him in his future projects leaves him poised for inevitable success, just as long as he realizes one thing: how much the world needs him to keep doing what he’s doing.
I know, I know. It seems that I am asking quite a bit from this young man in the future. My response to that? Don’t bemoan the curse of being brilliant; people only expect so much of you because they know you can deliver.
I give this album 4 out of 5 stars.
clementine cox, february 5, 2012 Follow @songbirdseagull
P.S. Before Josh responded to my email asking which of the ten songs on Troubles were originals, I had already chosen my favorites. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, my two favorite tracks on the album were the ones he penned himself, “Too Long” and “Lonesome Heartbroken Blues.” Both are pure poetry, but I think “Too Long” hits just a little closer to home at the moment, since I recently lost a loved one. My favorite line:
“Some are here, some are gone, some it’s been way too long. And some, I guess, I’ll never see again.”
-Josh Oliver, “Too Long”
[*Some of the recent albums Josh Oliver recorded on: the everybodyfields’ final album, Nothing is Okay; Jill Andrews’ eponymously named EP, as well as her more recent LP entitled, The Mirror; Sam Quinn’s The Fake That Sunk A Thousand Ships, and Sam’s more recent live album, To the Feet of the Gods.]
© clementine cox 2012 (oh your darlin’ publications, vol. 1)
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