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Nathan BellNathan Bell
Album: I Don't Do This For Love, I Do This For Love (Working and Hanging On in America)
Label: Stone Barn
Tracks: 13

The extended title may not trip of the tongue easily, but Bell's ruminations on work and blue collar America in the ongoing depression are more than articulate in getting the message to the head and the heart. As his grizzled voice suggests, Bell's been around a while, initially getting his name known in the 80s half of Bell and Shore, and, as far as I can make out, this is his seventh solo album. He sings about individuals and he sings about everyman, about men on boats, in factories, building sites and railroads, about taking pride in work, about working to provide for families, and about how work can take your soul. On the presumably autobiographical wearied opening title track (subtitled family man), he talks of working freighters, pouring concrete, pounding nails and singing songs, each job bringing "another love song to you." Its dusty tone and mood sets the template for much that follow, Bell variously calling to mind Townes, Guy Clark, Kris and John Prine on the likes of the harmonica blowing, mandolin accompanied 'All That You Carry', the sparse love song come lament 'Good Morning Detroit' with its forlorn cello and 'Dust', a duet with Annie Mosher featuring Claire Lynch on harmonies, that includes the wonderful line about how man's "surrounded by his angel that he chooses to ignore."

There are more uptempo tracks, the train time rhythm of the Detroit-set 'Stamping Metal (Strike)' which features unexpected sitar notes on a lyric about the relentless assembly line grind where "a machine's a man and a man's a machine", the electric blues wailing 'Walking Boss' (and the urgent, choppy acoustic blues of both 'At The Bottom of Kentucky' and 'North Georgia Blues' the latter finding him "drowning in a river of bad paper coming due."

Still, it's the slower, more reflective moments that hit the hardest. Closing number 'Stan' tells the story of a man who came home from Vietnam to get work as a hot metal man in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania only to go, like many others from a man on fire to ashes. Sharing a Biblical note, 'Jesus Of Gary,Indiana', a song dating back to 1994, is a striking narrative sung in the voice of a man laid off when they shut down the steel mills on the shore of Lake Michigan in 1984 and who now works the local bar "shutting up the drunks and the jerks." 'King of the North' (itself another Biblical reference) also concerns someone who traded professions when things went sour, only, for once, this comes with a relatively upbeat ending as it tells of young kid from Calgary,a talented skater invited to try out with the Red Wings ice hockey team Detroit only to come back on the bus "without a penny to my name". Instead, he opened up a diner, with a Red Wings neon sign, and, while it just gets by, everything he earns is his and, while he may still have dreams of what might have been, at least he "never had to strip the ground for metal or build a metal cage that would keep me in this town forever, trapped in the iron age." As Bell says, "sometimes you fail so well in life that you'll never be the same." But sometimes you can scratch a diamond from the dirt, even if it's only pride in work well done.

Mike Davies