There's an element of pluck in evidence when a singer/songwriter is prepared to wander along a troubadour road instantly recognisable as one that's been trod by the likes of music heroes, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
Josh Okeefe's cover sleeve image is early-days Greenwich Village Dylan with a capital G and there's no hiding that his songs and vocals are very similar to both these venerated artists. It would be hard to slide a leaf of sheet music between this young Englishman and his lauded seniors but that brings no complaints from me.
The man from Derby, now resident in Nashville, manages to hold his own in a contemporary sense by carefully finessing tracks in a somewhat Bragg-like manner into a trove from a standpoint offering appealing freshness and an individual air worthy of praise for a debut release.
Nine out of the ten tracks are just Okeefe with acoustic guitar and harmonica and Bob-style vocals, recorded live by the late Grammy-winning Charlie Brocco (George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac, George Michael, Kacey Musgraves) over the course of two sessions at Music City's historic Columbia Studio A.
These are nuanced songs of protest where youthful anger is unfiltered but thoughtful - Thoughts And Prayers, for example, reflects on school shootings, the perpetrators and the inaction to control gun laws in strident fashion. It makes its points flawlessly.
Contemplative album opener, We're All The Same, sets the scene and couldn't be more appropriate at this time: "Waves in the sea / Dissolve in the deep / Woman and man, like grains of sand / Through winds of change / We're all the same, we're all the same."
The chunky tones of The Lonely Highway prove less strident while jauntiness prevails in When Mother Nature Calls, though the undercurrent of doom haunts the verses: "Sirens will ring / But birds won't sing / Trees will be too proud to fall / Every dog will shake / Knowing what they will take / When Mother Nature calls."
Soldier, with an initial hint towards the Man In Black, examines the plight and horrors of military service all the while looking boldly, if unrealistically, towards a return to his true love. Young Sailor is a delightfully drawn picture of a "young sailor, a little lost at sea": it's gentle, sing-along number if ever there was one. The vibrant Rolling With Punches is a rollicking dedication to boxers everywhere: "I'm safe here under God's wing / Better go and put my head in the ring" and I just hope that pugilists would agree.
Okeefe's guitar playing is exemplary throughout as is his work with the harmonica, skills honed no doubt in the bars and rowdy honky tonks of Nashville, where dollars land in a bucket or an upturned hat as payment of appreciation.
And when he forgot to take the harmonica with him for the final track, Son Of The Working Class - Okeefe left it in a pizza shop before recording was due - a banjo that was 'laying around the studios' was used to fill in the gaps between the verses, a smart move.
It might be a low-key affair of a song that looks at "promises in the promised land" that didn't quite come off and he has to head back to England, and a less-than-proud father, who says he "was born low." But Okeefe refuses to dip into a maudlin or recriminatory pit as he bids farewell in song to his fond love. He favours being stoic, more realistic and mature, despite his plight.
This is a straightforward yet revealing, folk song collection meticulously forged in Tennessee and inspired from other areas far and wide. The atmosphere is quietly considered, gratifyingly measured and catchy - all in all it's bloomin' impressive.
|Norma MacDonald: Old Future||Charlie Dore: Like Animals|
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