Review: Jeff Black – Plow Through the Mystic (Lotus Nile, 2011)
Nashville-based singer/songwriter Jeff Black has some heavy friends, including mandolinist Sam Bush, guitarist Jerry Douglas and singer/songwriters Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters and Kim Richey. And though they all lend a hand on his fifth solo album, it’s Black’s voice – both singing and writing – that gives the album its soul. Black also played most of the instruments, overdubbing himself on guitar, banjo, keyboards, bass and percussion, but the only hint of one-man-bandism is the music’s tight grip on the songs. Black’s voice takes on many different shades, at various times recalling the downtown soul of Willy DeVille, the gruff side of Springsteen, the melodic saloon growl of Tom Waits, the deadpan of James McMurtry, the rye twinkle of Randy Newman and even a few moments of Neil Diamond’s pop-soulfulness.
Black draws from country, folk, soul, blues, gospel and contemporary pop, offering songs that range from the contemplative banjo solo of “Virgil’s Blues” to the foot-tapping Little Feat-inflected title track. Jerry Douglas laces his twang throughout “Walking Home,” but the husk in Black’s voice is more Memphis than Nashville, and his lyric – an internal monologue anticipating a forthcoming explanation – isn’t your standard country fare. Black writes phrases and draws images that are easily known, but connects them into verses that recast the easy first understanding. Early in the album, his characters are caught in dilemmas that find them on the verge of apologizing, disaffected from their taught beliefs, and weighed down by riches.
But the album takes a more grounded and optimistic turn with “New Love Song” and the turmoil in Black’s head subsides with the acceptance of “Waiting.” Still, even as he embraces a less guarded life, his happiness seems to be that of a cynic who finds potential loss at the root of joy, one who counsels “you’re going to find out just how heavy happiness can be.” He closes the album with the confessional “Ravanna,” contemplating the physical and emotional distances one travels from childhood, and meditating on the relationship between human frailty and divine grace. The travel from inner turmoil, through confession, awareness and acceptance suggests the pages of a personal journal, but one whose journey is still a work in progress.