Grayson Capps,
(Hyena, 2007)

Blues-rocker or folk-singer, depending on mood or circumstance, Grayson Capps writes Southern songs rooted in the region's musical traditions. The songs have an impressive depth and maturity that afford them more heft than most singer-songwriters can provide.

Songbones, Capps's third album on the New York-based Hyena label, preserves performances from a New Orleans studio session on Sept. 3, 2002, before half of the 10 songs here appeared in relatively more fleshed-out arrangements on If You Knew My Mind (2005) and Wail & Ride (2006), both of which I have reviewed -- favorably -- in this space. A master of the expressive but understated vocal, Capps carries the songs confidently though backed only by his acoustic guitar and Tom Marron's occasional fiddle and harmonica.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Capps moved to Tennessee after many years in New Orleans. That city -- and the larger state of Louisiana beyond it -- informed most of his writing in those days. New Orleans' street characters are front and center in several of the songs, affording the compositions a vivid sense of place while happily eschewing tedious autobiographical rumination. Another favorite subject is the musician's life, reflections on which are, rather astonishingly, set before a background narrative concerning a multi-fatality drunken wreck on the highway in "Slidell."

In another version that song appears on If You Knew, minus the s-bomb in the Songbones rendition. Why is it that in a song lyric "shit," now so ubiquitous in casual conversation that one barely notices it, leaps out and overwhelms one's hearing? I don't think it's because we're language prudes (I certainly am not); it's just that "shit" in that context feels like the laziest kind of writing. I imagine Capps had the idea he wanted to sound casually conversational, but I prefer, and I suspect you would too, the more considered "Slidell" lyric.

When these songs were recorded, Capps had no idea, of course, that New Orleans as New Orleans -- not the abode of your drearily predictable Southern-white-rightwing Republicans that it is now -- was about to vanish. Consequently, though it was not Capps's intention, these songs sound elegiac and acutely sad, an uneasy celebration of a place about to go down in the flood.

Along with his two previous Hyena albums, Songbones documents Capps's abundant talent as a roots-music figure with an original vision, if so far with less recognition than he deserves. If you don't know him, Songbones is a good place to make his acquaintance.

review by
Jerome Clark

15 December 2007

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