Review: John Meeks – Old Blood (Loud + Clear, 2010)
John Meeks lived the itinerant life of a troubadour before he was even old enough to drive or strum a guitar. Toted along to gigs by his musician father, and driven around the Southwest by his mother, Meeks racked up a lot of miles at a very young age. After a brief stab at college he settled in San Diego and tried out the indie-rock scene, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with the city’s roots musicians (including Pall Jenkins, Jimmy LaValle and Matt Resovich) that the sounds his father made came back to call. Meeks sings with a ghostly lonesomeness that’s partly Roy Acuff, partly Neil Young and partly bluegrass yodel. It’s a voice from a much earlier era. His studied tempos provide time to hold onto notes in an expressive drone, bending and trilling here and there for George Jones-styled emotional emphasis.
Meeks’ downtrodden lyrics are written from the gut, rather than the mind, and they’re fit to melodies that feel like a natural wander rather than composed map. Taken together, they make songs that feel lived in, musical expressions of emotions that aren’t so much wondrous discoveries as they are worn resignations. It’s the unlikeliest of music to be made in a city renowned for its temperate weather and beautiful beaches. Of course, Tijuana is just a stone’s throw away (neatly echoed in the moody trumpet of “Been Down By Love”), and Los Angeles is only a few hours up the highway, but Meeks’ murder ballads and laments of lost and crossed love remain surprisingly dark. Even at mid-tempo his keening melodies and the drifting backgrounds of guitar, bass, drums and fiddle are often laid out as a wail of defeat.
“I Don’t Even Want to Think of You” is taken slowly, wracking its balladry with more pain and isolation than its ‘50s styling would normally admit. The album’s heartbreak flares into moments of violence, but Meeks sings in the voice of a man whose personality is broken in two, whose misdeeds are hidden from his waking self. Even his threats hang ambiguously between leaving and ensuring no one ever leaves him. Meeks’ anguish is uncompromisingly singular, lending even the sprightly numbers, such as the Everly-esque “Oh My Sweet Darlin’” (listen carefully for “Bye Bye Love” woven cleverly into the melody) a powerful feeling of doom.