The field of confessional/poetic singer/songwriters can get mighty crowded, and it takes a very special performer to stand out. Following up on the brilliant B Sides and Confessions Volume 1, the new album, Tin Lily, makes clear how Jeff Black has risen to the top of that field.
First, the production of this album shows incredible care. Jeff, who produced the CD, carefully layers his arrangements, often starting with simple solo violin (Heaven Now), piano (How Long) or piano-and-drums (Hollow of Your Hand) and layering in instrumental tones and colors (often using Daniel Lanois-like reverbed sustained tones). The result is a fine balance of intensity and anticipation, masterfully engineered. Jeff's attention to detail runs even to the CD insert, which features a sepia-toned photo of Jeff working in his music room: A photograph that makes the listener feel he has been given a window into how Jeff's songs are created.
Second, the performance is exquisite. Jeff has a fine baritone voice, and he uses it masterfully, letting it ring like smooth water on ballads (Easy on Me) and lowering to a gravelly whiskey whisper on the rockers (Free At Last). He is also a rollicking piano player and fine guitarist...you'll hear a lot of Randy Newman in his playing. As in his previous albums (which featured collaborations with members of Wilco and with Iris Dement), Jeff adds some of Nashville's finest musicians, including Sam Bush on (surprisingly jazzy) mandolin, Will Kimbrough (who plays guitar with Rodney Crowell and Jimmy Buffett) , Craig Wright (who's played bass with Steve Earle) and Dave Coe, who was Johnny Cash's drummer.
Third, the songs are beautiful and moving. They are poetic rather than narrative, and Jeff has been quoted to say that he prefers not to explain exactly what they're about. But there is no trouble understanding the emotional sense of these songs: The triumph of love over struggle ("love has thrown a light across the shadows of this land/living in the hollow of your hand" - Hollow Of Your Hand), the joy of freedom ("she's free as a Libertine…knows her rock n' roll/ lets her colors show" – Libertine), or the call of the open road ("Streamline powerglide/a box of peaches on the passenger's side" – Free at Last).
Like an early Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Black has filled this album with heartland epics, performed with bare-knuckled honesty and sweetened with beautiful melodies, vocals, and arrangements. Well recommended.
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