Steve Poltz is like nitrogen in the atmosphere. He has been there for as long as anyone can remember, around us all the time, but he goes mostly unrecognized. Poltz flirted with stardom in the past via cult success as a member of The Rugburns, a solo record on a major label, a co-writing credit on Jewel’s “You Were Meant For Me”, even a performance at my North County San Diego high school where he stood two urinals down from me in the men’s room and never made eye contact– true story. But over the past decade Poltz has settled into an under-the-radar groove, quietly amassing a collection of songs that will one day be captured in a retrospective that will make people go “damn, how did I never hear about this guy?”
Poltz is popping up again with Noineen Noiny Noin, a play on the year “1999” spoken in an Australian accent and a kind of mission statement for the album: humor and travel rolled up into a foot-stomping folk gala. Poltz’s voice is incredible, as playful and clear as his “Hitchhiker Joe” days but more soulful and wizened, the voice of a veteran. Thirteen albums in, Poltz writes, plays, and performs with an utter lack of self-consciousness, resulting in compositions that amuse, delight, and occasionally confound. There are chorus-less seven-minute sagas (“Trash”), roots-revival barn burners (“Spirit Hands”), legitimately sweet love songs (“Dreams 23”), and half a dozen odes to world travel, including a trio of troubadour love songs to the road that should be used in tourism ads for Eastern Europe.
Noineen Noiny Noin is as playful as its title suggests, but it carries the weight of solid songwriting, strong vocals, and a steady hand at the roots rock wheel. Like other under-appreciated talents, John Prine and Chris Smither come to mind, Poltz writes songs worthy of mass adoration but that fit better within the motif of a small-time singer-songwriter just enjoying his days on Earth, as in “Conversations With The Moon”, where the subject travels thousands of miles to play a show no matter how few people show up. There’s a bonus disc, too, Noineen Noiny Noin and a Haff, which continues the ambling folk drive feel with a collection of especially raw and humorous songs. “Killing Myself to Be With You” is a love ditty exalting in the imagery of childhood while “Salt Suit” is a talking blues about a man that goes to crying rehab, a song which only Poltz, and maybe Shawn Mullins, could pull off.
Some of the roots rock detours are more dead ends than scenic bypasses. “Check Your Head” is a falsetto-heavy misfire with doo-wop backing vocals. “Giving Thanks” has a listless pulse and a chorus beginning with the prosaic “I’m giving thanks / It’s thanks I’m giving”. There is an inspiring but occasionally aggravating personal simplicity to Poltz’s songwriting. You can’t help but love left-field couplets like “I like the word belligerent / It rhymes with refrigerant”, but they’re often followed with lines like “I’m okay at lying / I’m scared of dying” which don’t deliver the one-two punch the kind of listener who loves that first couplet would hope. That is undeniably Poltz’s strength, switching gears at will, writing whatever comes to mind, and keeping listeners on their toes. That could be a reason why so many don’t get on the Steve Poltz ride, but those that do wouldn’t get off for anything.