Pity the young singer/songwriter. His career is always facing the relentless headwind of rarefied troubadour history and the bronze images of Those Who Came Before are evoked as an unreachable benchmark whenever his work is evaluated. His songs are picked apart at a detail that would make Trekkies and Jazz aficionados’ eyes glaze. Yeah, screw that….
23 year-old Joe Pug (nee Joe Pugliese) abandoned his pursuit of playwright dreams at the University of North Carolina and headed to Chicago. Working as a carpenter by day and spending nights playing guitar. Literary and working class bona fides, check and check. Pug’s first long-player, The Messenger, displays the traditions with pride but courageously carves out a comfortable space, somewhere between folk word-smithing and Americana/Country Music sentiment, to shape his own style.
The opening, title cut and the following How Good You Are sounds like it would fit nicely in the SO-Cal, folk-pop of a Jackson Browne late 70’s release. Unlike the outward-looking songs of his earlier EP, The Nation of Heat, The Messenger is a survey of the inner emotional landscape.Pug is aware of his chosen career’s cultural landmines and tendency towards preciousness. His self-effacement in Not So Sure boasts “I wrote John Steinbeck’s books.” in one verse, but and then pulls the chair out with “Stealing was so easy then, I wish that it still were.” in a latter one.
The Sharpest Crown is an lovingly somber tale of ill-fated love and Unsophisticated Heart is a learned survey on the singer’s romantic naivety, and Disguised as Someone Else is a scoundre’ls rumination of incognito redemption through labor for his lost love. Both os these cuts evoke a Nick Drake-style melancholy-beauty.The folk tradition of war protest is heralded with Bury Me Far (From My Uniform,) which makes its point not my ham-bahanded moralizing but by humanizing the soldiers that die in battle. Its the aural equivalent of showing the coffins – draped in Old Glory – being unloaded from the planes.
The First Time I Saw You is a fine literary country tune. “I’ve seen my share of counterfeit, I used to have them hang around a bit, Once you seen yourself a genuine, There ain’t no going back.”
I would be remiss to mention Rocco Labriola’s delicate touch on the pedal steel throughout The Messenger.
Instead of measuring Pug by the careers of unreachable greybeards that have had decades to hone their craft to teh point that thier misteps fade into the background, it’s more appropriate to gauge him by his contemporaries – M. Ward, AA Bondy, Josh Ritter – and he easily bests them all.
When reaching the heights of something as often precious as folk music it’s easy to come off like a pretentious hack to be met with same uncontrollable rage displayed by John Belushi to the precious crooner of “If I gave my love a cherry” in Animal House. But in a contemporary musical scene that laps up style over substance, and casts a sneering mockery of any attempt at heartfelt, it’s a wondrous and rare thing to hear a man with a guitar longing to craft songs to last long enough to become an icon.