Growing up in Missouri, Jeb Loy Nichols loved listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, but along the way Al Green and Jimmy Cliff weren’t that far from his favorites. In 1997, after ending his stint with the Fellow Travellers, the folk-meets-soul singer/songwriter released Lovers Knot, which was enjoyable for him but not the acme of his career. The amount of money spent on the album shocked him somewhat, something his follow-up Just What Time It Is avoided at all costs. Now, with his third release, the singer has cut off all excess sonic fat, resulting in a lean and almost pristine collection of easy listening gems. Recorded just over one week in Wales in September 2001, the album doesn’t sound rushed or haggard. It’s also the sort of style Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner is still trying to put his fingers on.
With a voice that is equal parts Cat Stevens, a trio of Johns (Hiatt, Sebastian, Mayer) and James Taylor, Nichols starts the album off with “Letter to an Angel”, a mid-tempo adult contemporary track based on the story of the first Anglo child born in the Rio Grande Valley in 1903. With a simple guitar picking and a bare arrangement, the song allows for Nichols to offer a voice that is unique but quite warm. Less than two and a half minutes in length, it also flows naturally in the style of Ron Sexsmith and other singer/songwriters. “Better Than Beautiful” has more of a funky and soulful seventies feeling to it, especially given the wah-wah guitar in the song’s introduction. Lyrically, it’s also a list of often overlooked items that are really little wonders on any given day.
“They Don’t Know” has more of a groove to it, a slightly more up-tempo affair that features Jim Benham’s keyboard as the colorful additive. It’s the type of song John Hiatt would love to perform but would seem a bit out of character for him. Nichols is more expressive vocally here and the subtle harmonies are another bonus. “They don’t know you like I do,” he sings before quickly returning to the second verse. But the album’s early high point is perhaps one of the least affable tracks. “Wild Honeycomb” doesn’t have a soulful feeling audible, but it’s one of the more soulful acoustically inclined tracks on the album. Abiding by the “keep it simple, stupid” creed as far as arrangements, the music says so much more by simply saying less.
The first miscue would have to be “A Little Love”, a track that sounds like it’s been over produced, too forced and out of place compared to prior tracks. Here Nichols doesn’t “want to set the world on fire” and would rather “just be who I am”, but the choice of keyboard, handclaps and more dominant rhythm section seems to take away from the precious sparseness created thus far. It’s a song Prince would throw on any album, but doesn’t work here. The acoustic instrumental conclusion should have been plan A here. “Wanna Walk” is another funk groove which thankfully ends almost as soon as it starts. “Heaven Help Me” returns to what works best. Featuring the first of Nichols’ solo guitar bridges, the tune is a plea to up above. A bit repetitive near its conclusion, the track makes the listener forget whatever happened to “A Little Love”.
“Mostly Bittersweet” is Nichols doing his best “unplugged” performance. Sounding as if it was recorded with just one mic as the acoustic guitar strumming seems in the background, Nichols sings, “There must have been a storm when I was born”. It’s the perfect misty London Sunday morning after tune. While not as soulful sounding, it’s one of the strongest performances Nichols gives over the baker’s dozen selections. The Hiatt touch rears its head on the more roots rock-oriented “Sure Felt Good to Me”. The meat of the song is more melodic than rocky, but it still has all the qualities of a credible song. “The Other Side” is another gem of a song, with just a tad more instrumentation than “Mostly Bittersweet”. Singing although occasionally speaking the lyrics, it’s the singer at his best.
The Hank Williams component of Nichols shines through on the lovable “Not the Only Man”. Resembling a song Williams would create after a month-long tour of Motown, Nichols would almost put the listener to sleep in the best way possible with his lullaby delivery. The sweetness of the whispered harmonies is another highlight here. Closing the album is “Never Coming Back”, which seems like the blueprint for most of the easygoing album. Nichols won’t retire off of this album or its royalties, but it’s just another inspiring touchstone on what looks like a long and promising future.
// Notes from the Road
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