Ray Bonneville,
Easy Gone
(Red House, 2014)

Though I am not opposed to them in principle, neither am I especially enamored of singer-songwriters. Even the labors of the best of them, by whom I mean generally Bob Dylan, as often produce lumps of coal as acres of diamonds. I am, however, realist enough to know that singer-songwriters are now permanently fixed on the musical landscape. Some are good, of course, and when I hear them, I prefer the ones with rooted sounds.

Ray Bonneville, who works out of Austin, is one of those. Part Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, part John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, he certainly sounds as if he comes from somewhere. His approach is distinctive; even with the manifest influences, you won't mistake him for anybody else. On Easy Gone he returns to his trademark minimalism. Most cuts are recorded with a trio consisting of him on various acoustic and electric guitars, Gurf Morlix mostly on bass, and Geoff Arsenault on drums. On a couple of cuts, Richie Lawrence's piano shows up, and sometimes Rick Richards takes up the drums, and Mark Norvel or label-mate Eliza Gilkyson contributes a vocal.

The 10 cuts are nine originals, plus a finely considered reading of "So Lonesome I Could Cry," albeit irritatingly attributed to "Hank Williams Sr.," as if otherwise we might not know who Hank Williams was or is, or -- worse -- as if to imply that the thinly talented, fatly headed Hank Williams Jr., stood on equal footing with his father. Of the self-penned numbers, the one that immediately leaps to the ear is a noirish train song, "Lone Freighter's Wail." Besides the vivid images and haunting emotions the song so perfectly conveys, it's sung in a train's voice. Bonneville has a particular gift for exposing the souls of objects. Another example is his grand "I am the Big Easy," the testimony of post-Katrina New Orleans. It's on his Goin' by Feel, which I reviewed in this space on 5 April 2008.

In fact, while any Bonneville recording has its rewards, Easy Gone will surely not be counted among his most compelling efforts. Goin' by Feel, in contrast to this, is a raw-boned, pretty much unforgettable collection of dark visions set in what feels like Cormac McCarthy country. The present effort, more conventionally framed, is largely concerned with romantic grievances. One song in that vein, "When I Get to New York," is downright creepy. I am going to presume it is written as intentional fiction, in the only imagined persona of a psychopath seeking vengeance on the woman who has, so he believes, wronged him. Whatever it is, it's not much fun to listen to.

On the other hand, if you're already a fan, you'll enjoy Easy Gone, sort of in the way an enthusiast finds a degree of pleasure even in a second-rate Dylan album such as Oh Mercy. If Bonneville is new to you, though, and you want to hear what he is capable of, which can be something pretty impressive, you might start with Goin' by Feel.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 April 2014

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