Love Filling Station Generally Unleaded
It has been nearly 40 years since Jesse Winchester first emerged on the American singer-songwriter scene. He spent much of one decade—the 1970s—in Canada dodging the draft. Since his touring options were limited, he became known primarily as a songwriter. When he returned to the United States and braced himself for the ‘80s, the country was, of course, different. Perhaps this is part of the reason for his sparse output since then. Love Filling Station is just his third release since 1981.
Either his songcraft refuses to confront a changed country, or Winchester is holding tightly to hippie ideals. There is nothing contemporary about Love Filing Station; it would fit into an easy rotation with other folk albums from the ‘70s, in part because of the sweetness of his usual topics: small-town life and innocent love. People fall in love easily throughout the album, but never seem to even consider having s-e-x or anything else inappropriate. “Bless Your Foolish Heart” is one of these songs. It details a small-town sweetheart who chooses the narrator above her other suitors, and there’s an innocence akin to Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Winchester’s voice is refreshingly natural, pure folk with a touch of a Chris Isaak-ish croon to it. “I Turn to My Guitar” is another song full of classic folk and old-fashioned noli me tangere romance: “The woman in my dreams / Too beautiful to touch / And I’m afraid to speak / I may say too much”.
Winchester has a lovely folk voice with the palest ghost of an accent from his native Mississippi to be convincing, and he’s capable of blue-eyed soul inflections that could work magic in the right context. If only the songs on Love Filling Station were reliably within that context. In many of the songs, a certain frail quality of Winchester’s voice makes the vocal melody and the musical harmony seem disconnected. While he writes beautiful music and lyrics, the moments when the two flow beautifully together are sadly few on this album.
There are some perfect moments where his voice does just what it should, the whole of “Sham-A-Lama-Dong-Ding” being such a lovely, four-minute moment. It’s a shame that Winchester displays such excellence on a cover song rather than one of his originals; it would be lovely to hear him give one of his own songs such polished treatment. A similar phenomenon happens on a cover of “Stand by Me”. Here, he succeeds at surrounding his voice with beautiful sounds—a soul chorus and a violin—that augment his voice but don’t overpower it. Even for an old standard like “Stand by Me”, Winchester’s version is one to remember, both as a high moment in his career and one of the better covers of the song.
When all the elements come together, as on “Lonely for a While”, Winchester’s original work shines. His flowing guitar work is natural and intimate; even the production has an innocence about it that is welcoming but dated. In fact, the whole album could be described that way. Its warmth and innocence are its best qualities, but the album sounds, at times, so innocent that it doesn’t seem like it was made by someone who witnessed much of the past two decades. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to the listener.