Seems few artists today actually walk the traditional roads of country music and make it sound like they belong there. Despite talent, voices, and great musicianship many artists don’t have the “sound” necessary to visit the melodic and distinctly original retro country music that existed for decades. Some may even say why revisit what has been done already? But, if they ask that question they miss the point of why that music was so creative and memorable to begin with.
The first track on the Jim Pelz album Loser Angels, takes a step out onto the tightrope of expressive old-fashion country music. Because he knows how to infuse it with modern energy, he begins his album with a genuine winner: “Faded" has all the alchemy of John Prine, Hank Williams, Roger Miller, and Glen Campbell. Pelz's warm voice and stirring lyrics stab the heart deeper than cupid. The fiery mandolin and guitars are first class country. And this would reward you with a proper introduction to a fine artist. This is not Tex Ritter country, it's not Faron Young, George Jones or Hee Haw-type country.
“I Can’t Hold On,” slows the pace and Jim’s excellent Jordanaires-type backup vocalists lay down a haunting backup and injects some enticing mood-candy. With the addition of his superb female vocalist/fiddler Lauren Schloemer – just the right amount of emotion is added to Jim’s polished leather vocals. Nice piano and guitars are sprinkled throughout this fine country tale. Great late night listening and an old time conclusion.
The next track is a rollicking clever song “Joni Linn,” and it’s easy – once you learn the lyrics – to find yourself singing along. While Jim is not entirely a John Prine his approach will remind you of early Prine’s twist of phrases and fascinating lyrical spins. This is another country song that has classical sensibility written all over it. That male back-up vocalizing is refreshing – and it doesn’t “age” the song or even make it approach the possibility of being corny. It’s commercial only in its hook-heavy melody. Forrest Lee, Jr.’s guitar solo is chiseled with exuberance. I even enjoyed the great thudding early 60’s style drumming – it just leaves it all in a state of excitement.
However, the fourth track is masterful: “Homecoming” has a melody that’s an instantaneous winner – the others are rubies and emeralds – this song is a diamond. Pelz has his finest vocal moments in this beautiful song supported by a sad, expressive and stirring Garin Webb saxophone. Saxophone in a country song? Yeah…ain’t that cool? Turn the volume up on this track.
This song is what I call a “Jim Pelz signature” song. A third Gordon Lightfoot, a third John Stewart and a third Marc Cohn. It’s brilliant. The lyrics are poignant and performed by musicians who obviously know how to put a song across, let it stew awhile and allow it to reflect in your memory.
Exploring a more deeper vocal, well-paced with sincerity – Jim sings about an “Overwhelming Love.” It starts out quite well but then it elevates itself surprisingly when Lauren begins to sing along with Jim. A great duo. It’s powerful and reminiscent of the fine work John Prine did with female vocalists on his “In Spite of Ourselves,” album. Jim sounds so terrific with a female vocal accompanying him – it’s a perfect balance of polished leather and cashmere. Lauren’s pensive fiddle adds a somber melodic dimension. There is country music and then there’s this -- artistic alt-country music rooted in traditional. This is solid. When words and music transcend just being written together to be a song. This track is a little story that can be relished and easily related to.
While some songs go for a more commercial feel Jim never loses focus on the quality of his inspiration. No songs sound the same – no clichés and many of his songs are a tourniquet for sad days.
“Gone Again,” is a song I would love to hear John Prine cover because this is ideal especially with Lauren’s backing vocal with Jim. John Prine and Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, or Bonnie Raitt. This is gold. Jim has perfected a musical style that has been around for decades but has only been explored by eccentrics on the outer reaches of Americana. Artists like Buddy Miller, Prine, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett. If anything is released as a single – this is highly recommended. It’s clever, vivid and most importantly it’s fun to listen to. Another Jim Pelz diamond.“The Devil That You May Know,” could almost be construed as a sarcastic wink of the eye to Randy Newman. If Newman sang country this would be a subject he’d choose. It has a jaunty melody, excellent Scott Gardner mandolin punctuating every last line. Jim may look like a latter-day hippie but this man is all-business and has impeccable musical insight and songwriting grit. None of these songs are antiquated attempts at the past. It’s taking the past and adding just enough contemporary spice to make it classic modern-day country. Pelz manages to compel all his tunes to move forward – with cream, frosting and sometimes little sparklers on his musical cake. Nothing he does is overly dramatic, bombastic or preachy. The songs have a balance that individualizes each. The melody also follows a tradition that allows for endless jamming. If Pelz ever assembles a live band that are similar to a country-inflected Grateful Dead it would be one hot band. One thing is for certain, had Jerry Garcia lived – he would be hunting Jim Pelz down for a jam. Pelz could fill that void – he has the discipline.
Lauren Schloemer sings lead on “Sand In the Machine,” and though Jim vocalizes in the background – the warmth comes from Lauren’s precise voice and Garin Webb’s mournful saxophone and the back up vocals -- infused with soulful harmony. Jim doesn’t sing lead on this but, this song fits magically into his “Loser Angels” repertoire. I think it’s a credit to his musicianship for having surrendered the spotlight to an excellent female vocalist who compliments his work.
Another jewel that sparkles on this collection is “Mr. Jones.” This has an impeccable ring of Mickey Newbury, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt and Bobby Neuwirth. But despite that reference – this is another Jim Pelz original. A good time listen, a great song to jam on and when it’s over – everyone stamps their feet and laughs out loud. A perfect song to end a radio show with.
The final track is pensive – lullaby-like – and powerful. “Soul of a Song,” sung in quite an emotional voice for Pelz. Again, the beauty of the song is lifted when Lauren adds her soft nostalgia voice. Pelz doesn’t go for that ideal of trying to impress everyone with his musicianship, his songs or performance. That speaks for itself. He has obviously worked diligently on his ability to craft music and showcase it with sincerity and poignancy. Every note is a careful accomplice to their clarity. The end result is an album that is what it should be: Enjoyable from beginning to end.
The guitar solo on this is endearing – it has mournful notes but it’s confident and assuring. There is a positive-edge to Jim Pelz work that is lacking in many other artists’ songs. The cheerful songs on commercial radio are often cliché ridden, silly and catchy. That's fine but a legacy doesn't rest on those kinds of songs. Few have the poetry of Jim Pelz. Most writing is as good as any fresh apple or banana. But, Pelz prefers to provide something that should last longer – we all know what happens to apples and bananas when they age.
There is a bonus track – I believe he was singing about “Fiddlehead Fern.” I could be wrong about the title. But, I am not certain. A great fiddle song that obviously features Lauren lighting up the strings with her bowing. Pelz belts out an energy-filled toe-tapper that is imaginative and appropriately a good closer to "Loser Angels."
Include a lyric book next time – words are important when they are this good.
All songs were written by Jim Pelz. Produced by Jim Pelz and Jeff Monroe and recorded in Kentucky. The CD was designed Josh Moore -- it's an attractive three panel sepia colored fold out.
Photography: Chuck Madden
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / May 2015