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Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints
Album: Texas, etc...
Label: DollyRocker
Tracks: 19

When you read how Nashville singer-songwriter Barry plays "sparse, weary, hard dirt Americana" that comes on like "a combination of Steve Earle, Jason Isbell and Chris Singleton", then expectations are high, especially since I was especially taken by his 2015 Milltown album. However, sprawling across two CDs, split into The Sainted and The Saintless, they sometimes fall short, not on account of the quality of the songwriting, but that there's not a great deal of musical variation across over the course of the 19 tracks, most of which are taken at a lugubrious pace with precious little instrumentation. while Barry's voice is indeed resolutely parched and weary that by the end you feel positively dehydrated. physically and emotionally

The songs themselves, however, firmly reinforce Barry's acclaim as a writer (even if whiskey does seem to be an overused image) with his downbeat and often stark visions of the corner of the world in which he lives. On the band format first disc, that's particularly true of the nihilistic 'Trouble In Tennessee', 'Galveston 92' and 'Chainsmoker', the latter one of the few that fleshes out the musical textures. Likewise, 'The Girl Never Loved Me' has a percussive rhythmic groove that makes it farther more interesting than the somewhat self-pitying lyric itself warrants, while 'If This Heart Had Walls' and 'Home' are veritably poppy in comparison to the surrounding numbers. Elsewhere, violin and lonesome harmonica add colour to 'Gravel Roads and Whiskey Bars' (another impressively desolate number lyrically) and 'Sad Song', respectively.

Over on the acoustic and virtually solo The Saintless, there's even less relief in terms of tone, pace and sound, although here it works more to the advantage and intimacy of the songs which sparkle like nuggets in the cracked and dry musical earth. 'Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time', a duet with backing singer Heather Austin, and the harmonica-shaded give up and get out fragility of 'El Paso Sucks' are both striking vignettes of despair, while the politically resonant we're all in the same sinking ship of the anti-racism Refugees and the broken marriage of 'A Little Mercy' are the real motherlode.

Somewhat unrelentingly bleak to be taken in at one concentrated sitting and it could have been arguably trimmed back here and there, but give it the room to breathe and let it soak in over time and you'll find it an absorbing body of work.

Mike Davies