Joe Pug “revisits” his rough diamond (and very popular!) Nation Of Heat record and proves, with Bob Dylan, John Prine, and rough and winding Highway 61 uncertainty, that those “vandals” just “took the handles” once again.
The first song, ‘Hymn #101’, plays its four aces Dylan-dream stream of consciousness word play that is always one step ahead of the casual brain. Bullet rhymes ricochet while an acoustic framework, with a lightly graced piano, percussion, and a guitar/organ jumble, that informs the world that it does, indeed, still “have a lot of nerve”. But Joe Pug adds his own twist to the tradition and, as he sings, “I have come to test the timber (and also!) timbre of my heart”. Great people, who just happen to be folk singers, often do that sort of thing.
Then, ‘Nobody’s Man’ begins with a big organ swell and then stretches its patient time with Dylan drama. Again, this music is just tapping into a street-wise tradition that longs for a frontier salvation. It’s all sort of a glorious melody that is unfurled in a very decent all-Americana thoughtful vote.
Now, just so you know, this album “revisits” Joe’s first EP recording — a bare-bones late night session in a Chicago studio during which he confessed, “I didn’t even know how to play guitar”. As said, great people, who just happen to be folk singers, often do that sort of thing.
This record enhances those very same bare-boned songs with help from Brandon Flowers, Carl Broemel, Derry DeBorja and Courtney Hartman. I don’t know. I love each vibe. Henry David Thoreau wisely advised in true American Walden fashion: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”. But, Perhaps, Aldous Huxley, in his intro to Brave New World, got everything right when he suggested, “You pays your money and you takes your choice”. But in fairness, the added musicians do add a colourful and sympathetic moan to these really nice songs.
But then (and oh my!), all bets are off with the brilliant song ‘I Do My Father’s Drugs’, which is a psychological funhouse miasma ride (that touches a vein well beyond opiate addiction!) with a witness confession into even more turbulent “hard rain” – where, as Dylan sang, “black is the color, where none is the number”.
Ditto for ‘Hymn # 35’ with lyrical juxtapositions that cast a “disappointed kiss” against ‘the unexpected harvest”. And by the way, the claim of “I will return” is set against, “don’t ask me when”. Oh my (again!) – this all conjures (in this old English teacher’s heart) the expansive and very democratic wide-open pulse of the great Walt Whitman, whose “barbaric yawp” sang a similar song that declared, “I believe a leaf of grass is equal no less that the journey work of the stars”.
It’s just a thought, but there’s a popular History Channel show called The Curse of Oak Island which is all about digging in a big Canadian hole during countless episodes, but sadly, it’s yet to find the always anticipated mythical treasure. But the astute archeologist, with a much better critical ear, can dig among the skeletons in these Nation Of Heat melodic bones and find a sacred trove with deep roots that touch Bob Dylan, John Prine, Howlin’ Wolf, Phil Ochs, two of Guthrie fame, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Joan Baez, Odetta, Joe Hill, Pete Seger, John Hiatt, and of course (sadly excluding countless others like Bob Martin and Marc Germino), Robert Johnson. There are episodes galore of deep musical history waiting to be unearthed in the grooves of Joe Pug’s time capsule tunes.
That suggestion aside, ‘Call It What You Will’ recalls the folky pathos of Danny O’Keefe (he of ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues’ fame) in his So Long, Harry Truman album vibe. Big compliment, there! And ‘Speak Plainly, Diana’ oozes with good Bruce Springsteen Nebraska harmonica and electric guitar voiced dust bowl breath, with a Mississippi River current chorus.
The final song, ‘Nation of Heat’, is a sombre cavalry bugle blast that just carves sad graffiti truth into our Rushmore monument. It’s just an old hopeful sepia photo that bleeds with very new Technicolor blood. The clever word play draws a Dead Man’s aces and eights poker hand and stares into the tough reality of an always present Civil War that burns like an eternally torrid California forest fire.
It’s a brilliant song that flies a tough flag.
Nation Of Heat sings with the sound of musical cylinders past, and yet it’s the music of an always earnest Americana here and now. And, as my friend, Kilda Defnut, said, “A hard rain floods and illuminates the dimly-lighted side street sadness in these melodic songs”.
Indeed, these are rain-soaked tunes from dimly-lighted dark side streets where great people, who from time to time just happen to be folk singers, often sing their important songs.
Artist’s website: https://joepugmusic.com/
‘Hymn #101 (Revisited)” – live: