JOHN FULLBRIGHT – Songs (Blue Dirt Records)

SongsThe Oklahoma native made his recording debut in 2009 with a live album, three years later his first studio outing, From The Ground Up, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Now comes his starkly and unequivocally titled third release, a reflective troubadour collection that, putting his piano playing front centre and conjuring thoughts of Randy Newman, should firmly establish him as one of the finest new songwriters out of America in the past decade.

As well as pouring more of himself in musically, handling guitar, keyboards and occasional percussion with Wes Sharon, David Leach and Mike Morgan variously contributing bass and percussion, there’s also more personal investment in the lyrics, many of which seem to be the outcrop of a broken relationship while others pertain to the actual act of songwriting. Indeed, the opening drawled and slouching (and a touch John Prine) ‘Happy’combines the two when he sings “every time I try to write a song I always seems to start where we left off.” Then there’s actually a sparse number titled ‘Write A Song’, although lines like “write a song about the very song you sing” and “think a thought about the very thought you think” are, perhaps, pushing self-reflexiveness a little far.

In terms of the heart, while there’s blood over ‘Until You Were Gone’, which features just acoustic and steel guitar as he sings ‘I didn’t know I was in love with you until you were gone”, there’s a vein of optimism pumping away. It might not seem so from ‘Going Home’, a catchily simple 60s folk pop (Beatles?) flavoured number with harmonica and whistling, where he and love may have “agreed to disagree” and he seems to be throwing in the towel (“I’m all through walking”, but, as he notes on the spare acoustic ballad ‘Keeping Hope Alive’, while that may be like “running on a razor blade”, it’s a fight he’s prepared to take on.

On piano ballad ‘When You’re Here’ (where he sounds uncannily like a cross between the young Billy Joel and Elton John), he’s punningly noting that while “some are lovers, some are leeches, summer flings on sandy beaches” and that there’s a scarecrow in his heart that “chases everything he loves away”, at night there’s also “a bluebird on his shoulder and he whispers that he’ll hold her one bright day.”

Likewise, while on the full band treatment of the mid-tempo ‘Never Cry Again’ he notes “there were nights I knew I’d be alone”, he also adds “I’m glad you took the time to remember you still had my number in your phone.” In similar manner, even though he gravelly intones how he’s feeling cold and naked and a long distance relationship means “the odds are stacked against us” on the wistful, slow swaying classic Jackson Browne-like ‘The One That Lives Too Far’, he asks her not to “forget the one that lives too far”.

He’s more openly positive on piano ballad ‘She Knows’ (“a thing or two about me”) where his lover “washes away my pain” while the Wurlitzer-accompanied, hymnal-like ‘All That You Know’ he soulfully preaches that we should cherish what we have while we have it and “love all that is real, love all that you know”. If there was any doubt that, whatever may have happened, he still believes in the durability of love, then it should be settled with the seven and a half minute ‘High Road’, a song written in his late teens, in which (hinting at The Band and closing on the piano notes of ‘Loch Lomond’), he tells the tragic story of young farming couple, the woman never remarrying after her husband’s killed in a tractor accident.

The album ends on the redemptive notes of ‘Very First Time’, another hymnal sounding ballad with solo piano that he calls the most honest song he’s written, where, needing only themselves and the wine, two lovers leave the phone and door unanswered as “between love everlasting and meaningless rhyme sits feeling good for the very first time.” There may be hurt, but at the end of the day, these terrific Songs have a feelgood attitude. And, as he says at the start of the album, “what’s so bad about happy?”

Mike Davies

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