David Olney is not himself these days. When the opening cut, “If They Ever Let Me Out,” from his latest, Don't Try To Fight It, cranks up, it echoes John Hiatt so faithfully in tone and lyrics you might think you'd misfiled one of your Hiatt records in the wrong sleeve.
Olney has always been a musical chameleon. He started at 19 as a folk singer, and in '73 became was a hard rocker with the Nashville based-X Rays, with a sound somewhere between Bob Seger and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes minus the horns and with an undercurrent of honky-tonk menace. He's been solo for a long time now, stretching the edges of Americana with his assortment of styles, characterized by his finely crafted storytelling.
But on this one he's morphing into different configurations on every tune. “Crack in the Wall” sounds like something David Byrne might have cranked out with the Talking Heads, Jerry Douglas gliding greasily alongside on dobro.
“Innocent Heart” finds Olney transmogrified into Marty Robbins.
Olney wanders off into Appalachia for “Ferris Wheel,” Blair Hogan's mandolin tinkling softly in the background as Olney, as a lonesome soldier “marching through the valley of the shadow of death” carrying a loaded gun with the safety off, reminisces about better times with his high school sweetheart looking down on his hometown from the top of a Ferris wheel.
“Sweet Sugaree” sounds like it was conceived on a late night booze soaked creep through a swampy bayou jukejoint, but Olney says he got the framework of the song from the erratic, funky rhythm his wipers made when they passed over a crack in his windshield while he was on the way to Rosemary Beach Florida.
“Yesterdays News” written when Olney first came to Nashville, is as mellow as Jackson Browne, with a trace of Tex-Mex running through it. It's a great story, told succinctly on a theme that's been done to death, but, Olney breathes new life into it, sketching the sad little opera with deft strokes. “The love of your life is only a few drinks away,” he croons, as a mournful voice in the background can be heard announcing last call. “When she calls your name, you better have something to say,” Olney cautions, “cause if she catches you tongue-tied and staring at your shoes, she'll leave you downhearted, feeling like yesterdays news.”
Olney's lyrics give other songwriters severe bouts of “I wish I'd said that” disease. But the only cure is another dose of Olney, if only to feel better imagining what might have been had you gotten there first.