Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street
Extraordinary country, rock, folk and soul
If you didn’t know better, but you knew enough to have heard both Greg Trooper and Bob Delevante, you might swear they are brothers from different mothers. Their voices can sound so similar as to really complicate the actual brotherhood of Bob and Mike Delevante (a/k/a The Delevantes). Both Trooper and Delevante trade in country-rock, and each brings twang to the roots rock of their shared native New Jersey. Trooper adds a helping of folk and soul to the equation, giving him a range that encompasses the roots rock of Willie Nile, the heart of Arthur Alexander, Willy DeVille and the Hacienda Brothers, the emotional perception of Richard Thompson, and the character-driven stories of Nashville.
The opening “All the Way to Amsterdam” is a perfect example of Trooper’s songwriting talent, juxtaposing a drunken father with a child’s dream of escape. The song’s heart-rending hope is renewed in the quiet of night and dashed in the light of morning; but that same light illuminates the hope fostered by the ice of Amsterdam’s canals. The melody draws its own tears, but it’s the tone of Trooper’s voice (an instrument Steve Earle has said he covets), both concerned and stalwart, that gives the song its emotional punch. The country-soul of “Everything’s a Miracle” offers up a perfect combination of steel (Larry Campbell), organ (Oli Rockberger) and soulful guitar (Larry Campbell again!) to back a vocal whose heartbroken misery stems from an inability to accept happiness.
The album moves effortlessly between country, country-rock, country-soul and folk, with the richness of Trooper’s voice pairing easily with Lucy Wainwright Roche’s backing vocal on the acoustic “The Land of No Forgiveness.” Trooper’s songs aren’t as squalid as the album’s pulp cover art might suggest, nor is there a deep streak of noir’s irredeemable fatalism in his stories. Instead, he writes of troubled people, peels away at the layers of their problems and studies whether their obstacles are external or self-imposed. Some of his protagonists blame the world for their own shortcomings, but others internalize outside turmoil as if it were of their own making.
There’s salvation in the album’s gospel notes, but redemption is hard-earned rather than given. The self-loathing protagonist of “This Shitty Deal” need not apply, while the kindred spirits of “The Girl in the Blue” may just salve each other’s loneliness. It’s something of a mystery how an artist of Trooper’s artistic depth and peer respect (he’s had songs recorded by Billy Bragg and Vince Gill, and albums produced by Garry Tallent, Buddy Miller and Dan Penn), has built such a solid catalog (this is his twelfth album in a quarter century) in such relative quiet. With Stewart Lerman returning to the producer’s seat (he first worked with Trooper on 1992’s Everywhere), the results are a reward for the faithful and a treat for the uninitiated.