Joe Pug has been heralded by bloggers, magazine editors, and other genre ‘insiders’, all before the release of his first proper LP. And here it is. A ten song album featuring some of Pug’s best songs yet, Messenger lives up to rather large expectations. Pug has been busy touring with likes of Josh Ritter, Steve Earle, and others. He’s wowed audiences from coast to coast, festival to festival, and even over the pond a bit. Not bad for a guy that started out by sending free 3 song samplers to any and all who promised to spread his music (Pug still attempts to continue this promise today).
Few singer-songwriters get the kind of pre-release press that Joe Pug has received. With the kind of lyrics and exposure through tours with Justin Townes Earle, Pug is a rare breed even as a singer-songwriter in that the Dylan comparisons actually hold some water. How so? Well, the songs have a Dylanesque song structure (see “Not So Sure”) and even more the simple transitions from his earlier acoustic versions to the full-band versions.
A favorite of recent live shows, the instantly catchy “The Door Was Always Open” has a new treatment. The full band version has a banjo and percussion background that only further powers the song. While the acoustic version was extremely well-written, the full-band version is a seamless transition. “The Messenger” was not a song I’d heard before and it seems the most natural. The band arrangement sounds a bit like Cold Roses era Ryan Adams. It includes both country touches (pedal steel) and rock band arrangement. The tune is both polished and ragged at the same time.
The biggest transition appears in the last track “Speak Plainly, Diana.” It caps the record and shows a full embrace of the full band motif. The guitar is even dirty and distorted. The percussive feel seems all the more natural and realized. In a similar way to a Springsteen or Dylan, Pug’s songs sound great as “demo” versions but often more fully realized in the full-band setting. The new record, while including the familiar acoustic side, also include steps forward confidently with fully realized tunes. Each one shows a different side of the tune. Showing this kind of depth as a songwriter bodes well for his future.
Messenger was one of the most anticipated releases of 2010. I think this was a result of both a) Nation of Heat being a sensation both on the internet and by word of mouth and b) Pug’s “dropping” of new songs in various live settings. His stop at the excellent Daytrotter website yielded live studio renditions of “Unsophisticated Heart”, “Bury Me Far”, and “The Door Was Always Open”. He played the standout “Not So Sure” at the LaundroMatinee, HearYa, and my personal favorite version was recorded live on MOKB Radio.
So when I heard Messenger a couple of weeks ago, I had a frame of reference. I wasn’t just hearing everything a fresh for the first time. I was mentally comparing the songs to not only the bootlegs I had collected, but to Pug’s fiery performance at last year’s Newport Folk Festival. And initially, I was shocked. Messenger was far more relaxed than I expected. Gone was the almost frenetic pace of Nation Of Heat, and in its place was a calm and self assured sound. Where Nation of Heat was like lightening, an attempt to capture the songs as quickly as possible, Messenger finds Pug in an almost painterly mode. And it makes sense, as these songs deserve the treatment. Pug enunciates each word of his beautiful and literate lyrics. Every note of his acoustic guitar rings true, often supported by a lamenting pedal steel and subtle drums. The result is a beautiful record that presents Pug’s new songs every nuance.
Pug is every bit the songwriter we thought, and Messenger is proof.
This post was co-written by Jeff McMahon. We here at Twangville are attempting to do some collaborative reviews of bigger releases to offer you differing points of view.
Look out for our new Joe Pug interview, which will probably be posted early next week (possibly with a give-away included!).
About the author: Specializes in Dead, Drunk, and Nakedness..... Former College Radio DJ and Current Craft Beer Nerd