joe pugmessenger
  • THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2010

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A disclaimer: I was asked for a review, and instead turned in an essay. This is just what happens when I write about Joe Pug's music. I don't think I can help it...

It's my handy, dandy problem to overcome, and I know I will. Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug is just too damn fine a musician to estrange me from the pristine pickings and fully-fleshed arrangements of his debut, full-length album, Messenger (Lightening Rod Records). But on this, his sure-to-be intro to the kind of masses who dig great, modern songwriters (think Neko Case, Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Gillian Welch), color me a tad disappointed...for now. It's Ok. I'm sure I'll be the only one.

That the 25 year-old-singer's music found me on two separate occasions is ultimately to blame for my slightly tepid reaction to this collection of ten songs from Pug's repertoire. My first encounter came in the crowded, back room of a Chicago coffee joint. There a tough looking, local carpenter would occasionally wander through the doors during open-mic night, most likely depositing sediment from whatever construction site he just punched out of between the cracks of the hardwood planks of the floor. Those first few times I saw him, he was dynamic and compelling...a prize-winning talent who could hold the room quieter than the crypt with his Nebraska-like pairings of warm acoustic tones and rusty pulls on a warn-in harmonica. In truth, he helped remind me there was still music to work for in this world. What the hell was I doing wasting away at a thankless, e-commerce company?

Some of those same songs - now in the form of the Nation of Heat EP - would find me some three years later in a heart broken, New York City. This time, another reminder: "things will be OK", "you're better off without her", "it's but a temporary sting", etc, etc. Since that time (winter, '09), it's been my great hope that Joe Pug's music would find many, many others the way it found me. I have no doubt the arrival of Messenger makes that an absolute possibility.

But the Pug I know...the one who's fingers scratch upon the rivets of his strings as he walks them up and down his baby's neck on "Hymn #35", the one who gargles rocks during moments of "Nation of Heat", the one who's imperfect sounding heart (that which pumps his playing, vocals, and lyrics) beat the honest to god life through last year's Nation of Heat and In the Meantime EPs, seems silenced on the quieter moments of Messenger; victims of perfect production, and a slick, studio shine.

Yes, there are moments on Messenger when the added production value seems necessary. Opener "Messenger", "The Door Was Always Open", and the re-imagined "Speak Plainly, Diana" - which originally appeared on Nation of Heat - all incorporate fuller bodied approaches. Queue dialed in rhythms on the drum kit, power driven flourishes on the electric guitar and pedal steel, and some solid bass work anchoring it all down.

But I just can't shake the fact that the album's more buttoned-down moments - songs like "The Sharpest Crown", and "Unsophisticated Heart" - come with slightly less life boiling in their pores than they would have, had they appeared on previous recordings. For example, "Not So Sure" - an admittance to vulnerability by its' very title - seems less affecting in its' spotless shell, despite brilliant, coming clean kind of lyrics like, "I undressed someone's daughter and complained about her looks/Stealing was so easy then I wish that it still were/Now as I pick my own pocket I know that these days I'm not so sure".

I know this means I'm accusing Pug of changing well before most folks have had a chance to hear him. In the end though, I know these complaints are (thankfully) trivial. It's just a recording, and those things I look for when I look to Pug still live on in previous EPs, as well as his stirring live performances. After all, it's about the songs in the end, and Pug's are some of the strongest you'll ever likely hear. So strong, Justin Townes Earle recently told us, "with Pug we have a chance for something really special". We: that's you, me, every one. So while I continue to warm to Messenger, it's my guess that most who encounter it will fall rather instantly for this insanely gifted, singer songwriter. - David Pitz

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MP3:"Unsophisticated Heart" - Messenger
Joe Pug on Myspace

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