New Jersey native Greg Trooper has been knocking around, making records since 1986, and he seems to get stronger and stronger with each one. He’s certainly respected in songwriter circles—Vince Gill, Maura O’Connell, and Steve Earle have all recorded his songs—but he’s a far-cry from the ubiquitous Music Row songsmiths. If anything, Trooper seems to have thrived in obscurity; it’s certainly hard to imagine steady growth like Trooper’s could have occurred if meddling from outside forces and concerns were involved.
Each of Trooper’s previous five records were for different labels, and Floating lands on arguably the largest roster so far: Sugar Hill’s. As big-label debuts go, it seems like a comfortable fit; Sugar Hill should be as familiar as anyone with the proper sales expectations for rootsy songwriters. In Trooper, though, they may get more than they bargained for. Floating is just the sort of solid, unassuming album that gains a life of its own through word-of-mouth and year-end “best of” lists.
Kicking off with the rich Hammond organ tones of “The Road So Long”, Floating establishes a warm, plainspoken feel from which Trooper never strays. Even on flashier songs like “Hummingbird”, Trooper stays firmly ensconced in the subtle, souful path he’s chosen for this album. The easygoing nature of Floating does come as a bit of a surprise, since Trooper’s previous effort, 2001’s Straight Down Rain, was firmly a rock record. The guitar still rears its head on occasion throughout Floating, but here Trooper seems more concerned with finding a comfortable style with which to cover a variety of topics.
Those topics range from death to love to wasted talent to Christmas lessons. The title track juxtaposes the pleasures of floating in the river’s water with the imagery of a murder victim who floated ashore years ago; even as the song grows increasingly grim, a gentle arrangement highlighted by fiddle and restrained guitar buoys Trooper’s relaxed delivery. “From Only You” kicks up its heels with spry mandolin and accordion as Trooper laments that a one-night stand doesn’t seem likely to repeat itself. “Hummingbird” sounds like a guitar-driven Buddy Miller gem as it tells the tale of a father who traded in his joy of playing guitar, and that the family sees its driving him to an early grave. Trooper’s most ambitious moment comes in “Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)”, which derives its lesson from the boxing champ’s liveliness, self-respect, and adherence to his ideals.
Trooper approaches his songs with just as much variety in style, although in more subtle, rootsy ways. “Apology” would fit easily into the repertoire of any decent soul singer, and Trooper delivers his regret in classic R&B crooner style. On “Inisheer”, he approaches his side of a lovely duet with Maura O’Connell with a vocal cadence reminiscent of Lyle Lovett. “When My Tears Break Through” (on which he’s joined by Buddy Miller), Trooper opts for ringing guitars and subdued washes of cymbals.
Floating isn’t an album that whips your head around on first listen; rather, it gets a few hooks in you here or there and waits for you to come back for another listen. With each spin, it offers up a few more surprises—Trooper’s straightforward lyrics begin to take on resonance, the easygoing pace reveals itself to be more varied than you first suspected. It’s a remarkably well-crafted record, and hopefully one that will allow Trooper’s audience to grow in proportion to his skills.