Barry grew up and still lives in a mill town in the Berkshire hills of rural Massachusetts, so he knows of what he sings when, on ‘Milltown #2’, he talks about how, in his daddy’s day you could find honest pay before the 80s came and everything changed, destroying hope and promises, while the lucky few may find escape through college or the military, mostly “no one ever gets out of the cold grave of a milltown”.
The track reveals a worn and weathered voice that may not always stay on pitch or in tune, but which, full of character and expression, has earned comparisons to Earle and Isbell, but, although that is just him and a guitar, the album also sees him backed by the wonderfully named The Pawn Shop Saints, featuring Mike O’Neill on guitar and dobro, Ernie Barufa on uke, bass and percussion, Pat Powers on banjo and harmonica and Heather Austin on vocals.
At 15 tracks, there’s a couple of numbers (notably the ragged ‘Weird Times’) that might have been judiciously pruned and, save for getting high on some roll your own in ‘Homegrown’ or the refusal to be pulled under despite everything in the defiant, mandolin-accompanied ‘Pinebox’, it’s almost relentlessly downbeat.
Here, then, are ‘Drag The River’ with its Christmas Eve tale of desperation, depression and drowning (“Bootleg whiskey and a little meth… Are far from my, only regrets”), the van Zandt-like innocent man hanging folk blues ‘Waiting’ Around To Die’ (“never laid a hand on a girl long as I lived”), and, echoing the theme of the title track, the banjo-flecked ‘Hard Times Come Around Again’ and the storysong ‘No Way Out Of This Town’ with its devastating line “when the cancer came, she let it win”.
And, while comfort may be found in resigned acceptance and settling for the ‘$10 Girl’ on a barstool in a town where there “Ain’t no diamonds, but there’s pearls”, love is generally bruised and bitter, a relationship balanced on the edge of collapse in ‘It’s Going To Snow Soon Sara’, shattered on ‘Gone’ (“She never gave a damn but she sure damn left a note … ‘Drop dead’ on the back of a torn, gas bill envelope”), pushed away on ‘Dry Summer Rain’ and suicidal on ‘Shoot Out The Moon’ with booze the only escape in ‘Why I Drink Alone’ (“better than going home thinking she’ll show”) and the standout, harmonica haunted ‘If You Were Whiskey’ (“I wouldn’t be a mistake, you learned to hate”).
Probably not one you want to listen to at your lowest ebb with a razor blade or bottle of pills nearby, but, like Cohen, Townes and other poets of wounded souls, Barry understands the often forlorn beauty of despair and misery and the catharsis and sense of not being alone that these songs can bring.
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Artist’s website: http://www.jebbarry.com/
‘Body In The River’: