David Lykins,
Blurry White Guy
(independent, 2008)

The first two cuts of Blurry White Guy -- its cover features an unfocused photograph of the artist, a member of the Caucasian tribe -- so much resemble Joe Ely songs that you could almost swear that's what you're hearing. The opener, "Houston," is even set in Ely's Texas. The second, "Greetings from the Riviera," might as well be the title of an Ely piece (perhaps a ghostly echo of another communications-themed composition, "Letter to Laredo"), and its Hispanic protagonist could easily be a character in one of his border ballads. And there's the fusion of rock, country and folk, albeit without the Tex-Mex seasonings. David Lykins, after all, hails from Chicago.

Which may be why "I've Been in Love Before" and "Day After Valentine" are so reminiscent of Diamonds in the Rough-era John Prine, who grew up near Chicago and honed his craft in that city's folk clubs. What I'm not hearing, I am relieved to report, are the Rolling Stones, whom Lykins cites as a leading influence. It has been decades since the Stones weren't all self-indulgence and, worse, self-parody, the very model of a modern corporate musical enterprise. That aside, blues is absent from Lykins's approach, and rock is far from all that's happening here. So he's not a heartland rocker in the vein of Bob Seger or John Mellencamp either. Fortunately, neither is he a singer-songwriter of the sensitive sort.

Though its influences aren't hard to discern -- and there's nothing wrong with audible influences; what matters is what you do with them -- Blurry White Guy is a good album. I've been listening to it pretty much nonstop since it arrived in yesterday's mail, and I like it better each time it spins past. Lykins, the photographs (non-blurry ones on the back cover and inside) depicting as a beefy middle-aged man, is a smart, mature writer with a gimlet gaze and a wit's way of upending cliches. Titles like "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "Here's Your Love Song" raise certain expectations, all tinged with dread, and neither of these fulfills any of them. After learning he's delivered quite the opposite, which may be why Lykins calls his music "subversive country," you'll want to shake the man's hand.

He is, moreover, a riveting storyteller. "Good News" -- the CD's title is a quote from it -- has the punch-in-the-gut resonance of a tough, unsparing short story. There are, of course, lots of ballads about criminals, but I've never heard one quite like this. The closer, the unsettling "This is My House" (an elliptical tale of family conflict, so I infer), will leave you shaken and moved. It will also leave you wanting more and anticipating the songs, sure to be even better next time, to come.

review by
Jerome Clark

18 April 2009

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