Jonah Tolchin "Criminal Man"
'Criminal Man' is an album that takes a couple or three listens to really get into - that first cursory listen is likely to give you the impression that here's another deep voiced finger picking folk singer.
Not that any of that is untrue. Here though is a man whose lyrics need to be listened to and who's songs can grow in quite mesmerising ways. This is not someone who has been to song writing classes and can bash out a lyric for any title or theme you throw at him. Instead, he's done his studying the old, hard, way - by listening to what others have done before him, taking in those hints from the Dylans and Zandts of the world and then, and this is the important thing, finding his own voice. There's plenty of protest here; there are tales, there are jokes, there's deep black humour. All this comes out clearly, and you wonder how you missed it at first, once you're travelling on the same train of thought as Jonah Tolchin.
Look, sure "Godforsaken World" is an epic statement of "just get on and live your life and don't settle for some predetermined plan - do this job, meet this girl, marry here, kids there". But it's the epic part of that line that's significant, as all the safe harbours of life are revealed as heartless control machinations - whether God's, The Devil's or just The Man's. "Pitchfork, Torch and Pen" is a proper rocked up tale with Hammond organ lines all over it which will summon up thoughts of The Band or Dylan in his pomp. This is nothing to be ashamed of - especially when the song lives up to the tune - "grab your pitchfork your torch your pen - start a revolution 'fore the story ends" - take your choice, what'll it be - violent opposition, shine a light into dark places or write and get the truth out there? And this is Jonah Tolchin's real song writing talent - to start at one place and end up somewhere else with the listener wondering sometimes just where the switch of the track happened. A confounding of expectations. An example - for all its apparent bouncing sing-along jollity "Mr Devil" is a promenade through the appeal of the darker side of human behaviour - the striving for the light forever doomed and failing with the descent back into the night.
There are clear environmental messages in songs like "Fracking Nightmare" and "Wrong Side of the Wire”, but you haven't heard environmental concern done in a less preachy way. When Tolchin does environmental concern it's a bleak portrait of the way things are going - no great finger pointing, just 'this is what tomorrow looks like, pretty awful, isn't it?' It's the same bleakness that inhabits "Rocks and Nails" - which starts off as "my baby's hopped a train and left me" and ends up with a dramatic suicide as the devil laughs from the side-lines. It's a heck of a song. Hang on though; I didn't say this was a perfect album. The main evidence for this is the jaunty vaudevillian jazz of "Cold Dark American Dreams" which is too Pokey LaFarge to sit so comfortably in this company; there's a couple of odd recording decisions - it sounds like everyone's in a different room on "Unless We Change", which kind of works, which means it kind of doesn't as well. So, it's not a perfect album, but it is a damn fine one though.