This actually came out last year, but an upcoming UK tour in February sees it being deservedly repromoted. Despite what the title may suggest, this isn't a debut, indeed, Blau, who's based in Washington, has released some 40 albums in the past 20 years (including a reggae reimagining of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite"), albeit the vast majority either as downloads or cassettes, some studio, some live, through his subscription service , although this is only the eighth to have a label release as such.
Nor is it a compilation of old material trawled from the back catalogue, but, while new recordings, they are also all covers of Nashville country hits from the 1960s and 70s rather than originals. Produced by Tucker Martine, who was introduced to Blau's work by Laura Veirs (who guests on the album alongside My Morning Jacket's Jim James), it was sparked by a 7" single of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis", now the opening track here and revealing Blau's tremulous, sonorous vocals. That led to the full album, conceived as taking old country-soul hits and recasting them with a modern feel, mining the songs' themes of loss, loneliness, infidelity, and melancholy to create a narrative flow, a journey from darkness to light.
Hall is featured twice, the second cut being his 1969 hit and the title track of the following year's album, "Homecoming", a poignant song about a songwriter's brief visit home to see his elderly father, though I do think the pacing here's a little too fast to suit the tone of the lyrics.
Not all of the choices will be that familiar, the first case in point being "Six White Horses", not the Tommy Cash hit, but the anti-war number written by Bobby Bond and recorded by Waylon Jennings on "The Taker/Tulsa" album. Likewise, and decidedly more obscure, "Let The World Go By", a song written by Layng Martine, Jr, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall fo Fame who also penned "Way Down" for Elvis, and originally recorded in 1968 by the falsetto-voiced Glenn Yarborough, while Blau's version more suggests Lee Hazelwood. Equally, while it may have been his last number one, I'd bet few will have heard of Don Gibson's "Woman Sensuous Woman", Blau delivering a very faithful cover.
The last of the lesser known numbers is "Fallin' Rain", a protest number originally featured on Link Wray's self-titled 1971 album, here stretched out to some nine minutes with a lengthy introduction featuring what sounds like sleigh bells, Blau's delivery recalling Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"
The remaining four numbers will be immediately identifiable, the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" given pedal steel and female backing gospel singers to remake in the image of country soul, complemented by the warm, smooth vocals. Alan Reynold's "Dreaming My Dreams" (or, more accurately, "Dreaming My Dreams With You") has been covered by dozens of country artists, though is probably most indentified with Waylon Jennings, the deep voiced, slow carousel waltzing version here swathing strings around its simple guitar line.
Like Jennings, the more folk-oriented Tom Rush and Townes Van Zandt are iconic names in the history of early Americana and Blau has included their best known and most covered songs, the latter represented by the skipping rhythm of "If I Needed You", here given a fuller arrangement, and the former by a faithful reading of the wearily resigned "No Regrets" on which he actually sounds like Rush.
The decision to go with covers in order to introduce Blau to a wider audience was well reasoned, using the familiar as bait to hook listeners on his voice and relaxed style (in some ways he's a bit like a 21st century Don Williams), but, with the job done, a follow-up selection of some the best of his own material strikes me as a good idea.
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