Jamie Block emerged from the anti-folk movement of New York’s Lower East Side, the same one that spawned Michelle Schocked, back in 1996 with Lead Me Not into Penn Station. Penn Station garnered good reviews, but few sales, and after a follow-up a few years later fell victim to label shuffling, Block turned his back on the music business and became a successful financial analyst. It’s no wonder that his newest album, his first in nearly a decade, closes with a cover of Irving Berlin’s “Show Business” that, for all its jazzy swing, clearly counts Tom Waits’ oppressed, drudgery-laden version of Snow White‘s “Heigh-Ho! (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)” as a spiritual forefather.
It wasn’t until he was driving to work one day and heard a DJ lamenting the fact that he’d disappeared, that Block decided to give music another try. The resulting album, The Last Single Guy, is a largely autobiographical chronicle of his early days playing music in New York. “Ave. A” teems with memories of moving to New York City from the South, meeting his wife, meeting Alan Ginsberg, and writing “songs to the prostitutes at 2 a.m.” That’s a lot to pack into a song, and throughout Single Guy, Block has some gritty, quirky stories to tell. Coming across like a cross between Beck and Lou Reed, he revels in words, setting them against beats and straightforward piano riffs that evoke city streets and rhythms. He even manages to twist the Irish folk standard “Molly Malone” (a tribute to his mother) around so that it sounds like it should be on the next Cake album.
Block’s most direct homages, though, are to the Beatles. He plops the bass line from “Rain” into the psychedelia-tinged “Do You Know the Way” and uses the piano riff from “Hey Bulldog” for “Sweet Potato Pie”. Still, it’s his densely packed lyrics and his street-wise style that set Block apart. That said, he does cross the line sometimes. “Sweet Potato Pie”, for example, carries too much of an uninhibited street-poet-rap vibe (even for someone who so greatly evokes Lou Reed).
Ironically, Single Guy might be at its most interesting when Block eases off the controls a bit. “Christine’s Loft” tells its tale with a simple piano pattern and relatively unobtrusive sound effects, while the ramshackle ease of “It Rained All Night” evokes Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb. Part of the problem might be that Block’s fondness for spry, tweaked arrangements places a little too much distance between the listener and his stranger-in-a-strange-land memories. Pair that with a vocal range that fits somewhere between Lou Reed and the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, and you don’t end up with a record that allows the listener easy emotional access. Granted, the anti-folk movement didn’t have much use for earnest outpourings of feelings, but Block doesn’t seem to be playing that game this time out. The resulting tension sometimes works in his favor, but not in others, resulting in an album that’s definitely interesting and clever, but perhaps not as resonant as it could be.