The Drive-By Truckers keyboardist establishes himself as a secret pop threat on a solo debut that sounds nothing like Hood, Cooley and company.
It's become accepted knowledge among Drive-By Truckers fans that former singer-songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell was the Southern Rock band's pop guy, but Isbell's tuneful leanings have nothing on those of current DBT keyboardist Jay Gonzalez. This might have been easy to miss until now, considering Gonzalez has laid low in the band, not amassing a single writing credit or lead vocal since joining in 2008. His solo debut shows that it's definitely not for lack of talent, but perhaps a concern for mixing the band's whiskey with Gonzalez's meticulously-prepared sweets.
In fact, based on the classic AM radio pop sound of Mess of Happiness, you'd never think to associate him with the Hood-Cooley collective. Not content to stay on one chord for too long nor write a song much longer than three minutes, Gonzalez hops from one memorably pretty musical idea to the next. While he does get some musical assistance here, including a table steel line by Trucker John Neff on the album's instrumental outro, Mess sounds very much like the work of one guy who's spent serious time thinking about his tunes and meticulously fleshing out their arrangements for maximum melodic appeal.
His approach unmistakably evokes similarly restless classics of early '70s shut-in singer-songwriting, like Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything and Emitt Rhodes's self-titled album, but so very few musicians pull off this style of ornate songwriting with such lightness and apparent effortlessness. It's a more than welcome addition to a fairly limited canon of complicated singer-songwriter pop and this should particularly please fans of Jellyfish's Bellybutton, Jon Brion's Meaningless and Carl Newman's pre-New Pornographers outfit, Zumpano.