Jeb Barry is one of those archetypal American Singer Songwriters that could have been sitting around the dining room table with Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Larry Jon Wilson and all the rest of them in 'Heartworn Highway'. Difficult to guess his age from the album cover and website pictures, but in reality I think it's unlikely he was there in the 1970's!
However, it was these artists and that era which a first listen to his CD 'Milltown' conjured up for me, particularly with the sparseness of the instrumentation and the intimate weariness of his delivery.
To further the comparison, Jeb writes in the liner notes that the songs were recorded live without 'computers or sweeteners', which put me in mind of another 'Heartworn Highway' sequence. Here the late, great Larry Jon Wilson sits down in the studio, teaches the chord changes to the band, they have a quick run through the song and are then off as the engineer pushes the record button. Having said that, unlike Larry, Jeb would have needed to push his own button as he is credited with both recording and producing this album!
A quick look at the bio on Jeb's website fleshes out the image of him as a long time singer-songwriter journeyman, paying his dues on the road of hard knocks. More recently though, things have been looking up and he has garnered praise as a songwriter after having some success pitching his music in Nashville, performing at bigger venues and playing with a band, The Pawn Shop Saints, who also feature on this CD.
Jeb pretty much sets out his stall for the record on the opening track 'Milltown #2' which leads in with a beautifully recorded acoustic, rhythm strum for a few bars until his weathered tones enter with the ubiquitous story of a small town, hard times and loss. He has a characterful voice and in reviews, frequent references are made to Steve Earle and Jason Isbell. To me, he has more of the earthiness of Steve Earle than Jason Isbell's sweetness, with hints of Bob Dylan and maybe a dash of Bruce Springsteen in Nebraska mode.
As noted earlier, something of a statement is made about the absence of 'Sweeteners' and 'Autotune' in the making of this album. This choice is evident as the tracks do have a live, immediate and sometimes on the edge of breaking up feel. This is refreshing but at times it does mean Jeb's pitch and some of the instrumentation wanders in and out a little, which might upset a few purists!
For myself, this tension between the first take, lived in feel and a maybe more polished product makes for uneasy listening on occasions. I don't think it is necessary to use 'Sweeteners' or 'Autotune' to record something that is consistently in tune, neither does it always follow that having a few more takes getting these basics in place will mean the fundamental, rough cut musical integrity will be lost. However, it all comes down to listener taste and preference I guess and judging by the reviews already on his website, these imperfections are perhaps better seen as part of his ragged appeal.
As well as taking all the lead vocals, Jeb plays guitar, mandolin and resonator. Discrete, additional instrumentation is contributed by the previously mentioned Pawn Shop Saints, who feature Mike O'Neill on vocals, guitar and dobro, Heather Austin on vocals, Ernie Barufa on uke bass and percussion and Pat Powers on banjo and harmonica.
Stand out tracks for me are 'Dry Summer Rain' with it's choppy guitar and imagery, the dark story of 'Drag The River' sweetened by its lovely instrumentation, 'Weird Places' which boasts a lovely, driving acoustic guitar riff, 'Gone' with its rolling, John Hiatt 'Crossing Muddy Waters' type vibe, the beautifully quirky 'It's Going To Snow Soon Sara' which wouldn't be out of place on an album by The Eels and 'Waitin' Around To Die', that is as gloriously miserable as the title suggests!
With over 400 songs already to his credit, the 15 self-penned tracks here are a further showcase for Jeb's song writing and the addition of The Pawn Shop Saints offers a real 'live show' trailer. In fact, for an English lover of acoustic music, it is hard to think of anything more authentically American than wandering into The Bluebird Café in Nashville and catching a set from Jeb Barry.
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