Everyone wants to talk about Big and Rich and Gretchen Wilson, and that’s fine. But there’s another member of their Nashville Musik Mafia freak parade who has made an album just as satisfying and fascinating in 2005 as either one of those acts. And he’s done it by playing things as straight as he can.
Jon Nicholson is a soul singer. I guess I’m supposed to say “blue-eyed soul”, because he’s a European-American person, but I don’t think his eyes are actually blue, so I won’t. He’s also a country singer and a rock singer, but the main thing he does here is soul music, and he does it very well.
I know, you’re skeptical. Believe me, I was too. We don’t need more Uncle Krackers in this world (although he did kinda kick Kenny Chesney’s ass on their duet, and I didn’t really mind “Drift Away” being back on the air… okay, Kracker’s okay after all), and I hate the way white people get more credit for singing soul music well than black people do. (Cue boring sociological discussion here.) And it’s fun to kick against the whole Musik Mafia, because they’re just too trendy and overexposed, etc., etc., blah blah blah.
But despite all my personal baggage, Jon Nicholson is undeniable. First of all, his wasted earthy voice is really very good. It’s not a perfect instrument, maybe, but he ramps it up on the choruses of “7 Days” or “Love Is Alright” you won’t care about that because you’ll be trying to sing along and you won’t be able to hit the same notes and you’ll agree with me.
Secondly, Nicholson has catholic (note the small c, there) tastes. He loves all sorts of music, and that usually bodes well. He knows his Stax and his Hi and all that, but he’s also up on his John Cougar Mellencamp (“Hero” would have been a great track on Uh-Huh, and that’s one of the biggest compliments I’ve thrown around this week) and his Nuggets box set (“Rock and Roll” sounds like the Standells and complains about how the title music is breakin’ his heart so he’s goin’ to California, and I guess I don’t know how that’s going to help him, but I like the Zep reference) and his Billy Joel (“Take Me Back,” haha OMG LOL), and he just doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.
Thirdly, he’s a funny and interesting songwriter. “Stereo” steals a theme from the dB’s “Amplifier” and turns it into a big fat declaration of love of music: “I used to listen to Al Green and the Faces / Cheap Trick and the Replacements / Now I’m sittin’ in my basement / Singin’ to myself.” In “Just a Man”, he laments being a simple guy in a relationship with a very complicated woman, and he’s okay with that, mostly—most guys use this as an excuse to sing about how women should shut up, but not our guy Jon, and I can’t remember a similarly-themed song with so little rancor about this subject. And I love how the simple question “Are you cool?”, asked of him by some random girl on a couch, turns into a huge rant called “How Would I Know?”
There’s also a song where Nicholson gets high with his 92-year-old grandmother. TELL me that doesn’t rule.
So although this isn’t the most wonderfullest thing in the world, maybe, it’s solid and fun and heartfelt and poppy and funky and gritty (two swears on a modern album aiming at the country market, dude deserves a medal!) and everything else that music is supposed to be. Nicholson might end up being the dark horse in his little rebel clique, and this album is a dark horse for my year-end top 10 list.